Tiny Robotic Insects Take Flight
May 3, 2013

First Flight Of Robotic Insects Represents Marvel Of Modern Engineering

[ Watch the Video: Controlled Flight Of A Biologically Inspired Robot ]

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Last summer, in the early hours of the morning, Harvard engineer“¯Pakpong Chirarattananon looked on as a tiny metallic insect jumped, hovered and then sped through the air along a preset route. The Harvard graduate student had just witnessed the first flight of an insect-sized robot and the result of more than a decade's worth of work.

"I was so excited, I couldn't sleep," he said.

"This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years," added Robert J. Wood, principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported RoboBee project. "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."

According to the team´s report in the journal Science, the robot is half the size of a paperclip, weighs less than a tenth of a gram, and can flap its wings“¯120 times per second.

"We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything," Wood said. "We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target."

The tiny robot wings are made of strips of ceramic called piezoelectric actuators that expand and contract when exposed to an electric field. Its joints are made from thin hinges of plastic, and a tiny control system allows for wing control and rotation in real-time.

Besides developing the robot itself, the team of engineers devised a unique manufacturing technique in 2011. Using thin sheets of laser-cut materials stacked together like a pop-up book, the team was not only able to replace the tedious construction process, but the new method allowed them to use more robust materials in new combinations. The team has been able to make 20 prototypes in the past six months.

"We can now very rapidly build reliable prototypes, which allows us to be more aggressive in how we test them," said Kevin Y. Ma, a graduate student at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

The flying insects must still be tethered to their power source by a thin cable because the team has yet to develop an energy solution small enough to be mounted on the robot's body. The prototypes are still controlled by a separate computer as well.

"This work is a beautiful example of how bringing together scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines to carry out research inspired by nature and focused on translation can lead to major technical breakthroughs,” said collaborator Don Ingber, a director at Harvard´s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

"This project provides a common motivation for scientists and engineers across the university to build smaller batteries, to design more efficient control systems, and to create stronger, more lightweight materials," Wood added.

"You might not expect all of these people to work together: vision experts, biologists, materials scientists, electrical engineers. What do they have in common? Well, they all enjoy solving really hard problems."

"I want to create something the world has never seen before," Ma said. "It's about the excitement of pushing the limits of what we think we can do, the limits of human ingenuity."