Electric Fly Takes Flight


The world’s smallest flying robot has made its maiden voyage. The tiny device uses electrically-powered movements that mirror the way a fly propels itself.

The robot, dubbed RoboBee, is the work of staff at Harvard University. It’s barely bigger than a coin with a three-centimeter wingspan and weighs less than 0.1g.

The carbon fiber robot has wings made from a piezoelectric material. This means the material contracts when subjected to a current, something the researchers have used to create a virtual muscle to flap the wings. The system allows the wings to flap 120 times a second.

RoboBee is effectively self-piloted. A computer detects its position through a combination of infrared cameras and reflective patches and then adjusts commands to the wings to change its direction. This also allows it to move out of the way of obstacles.

Although self-propelling, the robot can’t fly completely free at the moment. Researchers haven’t yet found a way of making either a power source or a receiver for direction commands that is light enough to fit on the robot, so it’s currently tethered to a computer over a thin wire that carries both power and command data. Kevin Ma, one of the graduate students on the project, has set a target of two years to get this equipment “on board.”

With the current design, the wings can only last for around 15 minutes before material fatigue grounds the robot permanently. Because of this limitation, test flights are currently limited to 20 seconds.

Despite the insect comparisons, a mechanical engineer not involved with the project told Science magazine we should think of it in terms of traditional machines. Vijay Kumar noted “This is the smallest flapping wing aircraft that has ever been built and made fully functional.”

In the long term the researchers hope RoboBee could be adapted for search and rescue use or even crop pollination. However, the real benefits could come from lessons from the manufacturing process of the wings which involves making a flat sheet of carbon fiber and polymer that folds together into the three-dimensional wings.

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