October 22, 2015

Robobees can already fly and swim, but soon they’ll have laser vision

Measuring in at the size of a quarter and with relatively few parts, robotic bees have been all the rage in the field of robotics lately. Now, engineers from the University at Buffalo are preparing to outfit the tiny drones with laser-powered eyes to allow them to sense the dimensions and distance of approaching items.

“Essentially, it’s the same technology that automakers are using to ensure that driverless cars don’t crash into things,” Karthik Dantu, a member of the UB "laser eye" team, said in a statement. “Only we need to shrink that technology so it works on robot bees that are no bigger than a penny.”

The UB program is actually a spin-off of the groundbreaking RoboBee initiative being led by engineers at Harvard and Northeastern University. So far, the initiative has demonstrated that robot bees can be equipped for both flight and submerged motion, all while tethered to a control system.

Making sure the bees don't crash into things

A major restriction on the bees thus far is a deficiency of depth perception, as a robot bee can't perceive what’s in front of it. Dantu noted that some kind of vision system is important if the bees are to avoid obstacles or land on a designated spot.

To address this shortfall, the engineering team will be equipping robot bees with remote sensing technology known as lidar, which is also currently being used to develop driverless cars. Lidar, or light detection and ranging, is similar to radar (Radio Detection and Ranging), but lidar emits laser beams instead of microwaves.

With the driverless car system, laser beams seize onto light reflected from faraway items. Sensors then assess the time it takes the light to come back to determine the distance and shape of the items. Sensor data is then reviewed by computer calculations to form a clear image of the car’s path, and this permits the car to “see” its environment, follow traffic signs, avoid obstructions, and make other route modifications.

On a car, lidar systems are about the size of a camping lantern. Dantu and his colleagues said they want to make them much smaller with a version called “micro-lidar”.

The team noted that the technology they are developing could also be used in wearable technology, endoscopic tools, and mobile devices.


Feature Image: Microrobotics Lab, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering