Giving New Meaning to the Word Drone

With the growing surge of interest in new lightweight UAS for a variety of applications, there has always been a push to move to smaller and lighter airframes.  Well it seems like some Harvard researchers have played the trump card and given new meaning to the word drone.

Drone BeeDrone Bee

Harvard University researchers have conducted the first controlled flight of so-called “RoboBees,” which weigh less than a tenth of a gram and are half the size of a paperclip.  This flight test is the product of over 10 years of research on the “RoboBee” platform which incorporates some several amazing manufacturing techniques.

Robotic Drone BeeRobotic Drone Bee

According to researchers, the “RoboBee” was able to hover for a few moments and then flew on a “preset route through the air.”

“This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years,” Robert J. Wood, principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported RoboBee project, said in a statement. “It’s really only because of this lab’s recent breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials, and design that we have even been able to try this. And it just worked, spectacularly well.”

The tiny machine, which was developed for the purpose of studying insect flight, was actually inspired by the biology of a fly, not a bee, and included a submillimeter-scale body and two wafer-thin wings. The wings seem to flap invisibly and beat at a rate of 120 times per second.

“Large robots can run on electromagnetic motors, but at this small scale you have to come up with an alternative, and there wasn’t one,” co-lead author Kevin Y. Ma said.

The robot is able to flap its wings using piezoelectric actuators, which are strings of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. However, the real technology is in the fiber body, which is where the system stores its control system.

However, this painstaking project does not have to be repeated over and over again. In fact, the team has utilized a quick manufacturing process inspired by children’s pop-up books to produce multiple samples at a time. This process was actually created a few years earlier by Wood’s team as well.

“We can now very rapidly build reliable prototypes, which allows us to be more aggressive in how we test them,” said Ma.

Once the researchers perfect the design of the RoboBee they will be able to mass produce easily, with a fully automated process.

The first video highlights the manufacturing process used in the “RoboBee” construction.  Standard MEMs techniques applied to a micro air frame.  The follow up video shows the actual flight.

Flight video is below.

“Now that we’ve got this unique platform, there are dozens of tests that we’re starting to do, including more aggressive control maneuvers and landing,” says Wood.

Follow on work will involve integrating the parallel work of many different research teams who are working on the brain, the colony coordination behavior, the power source, and so on, until the robotic insects are fully autonomous and wireless.

The prototypes are still tethered by a very thin power cable because there are no off-the-shelf solutions for energy storage that are small enough to be mounted on the robot’s body. High energy-density fuel cells must be developed before the RoboBees will be able to fly with much independence.  Flight control is also wired in from a separate computer, and managed by other team members working on a computationally efficient brain that can be mounted on the robot’s frame.

Interesting technology to say the least.  The next time you’re at the park take a closer look at that pesky bee and make sure he’s organic.

What do you think about “RoboBee” and it’s possible applications?   Leave your feedback here or drop me an email at [email protected] this blog’s url and let me know.  Finally (and most importantly) sign up for my mailing list to keep in contact with me and the projects I’m pursuing.  I promise no spam, just periodic updates on the projects I’m working on and topics related to them.

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