Albert Einstein once predicated that without bees man would have only four years left on the planet. But mechanical engineer Robert Wood and graduate student Kevin Ma might disagree.
The two engineers and their Harvard-based team have created a small robot no bigger than a house fly. The tiny robot, half the size of a paper clip and weighing only 80 milligrams, can fly and hover just like an insect, flapping its wings at a rate of 120 times a second.
Ma says that the robots could be used in a variety of ways in the future, from search and rescue missions in collapsed buildings to crop pollination.
The flying robot—dubbed “RoboBee” by Harvard engineers—is so small that conventional techniques could not be used to manufacture it.
Instead the Harvard team used a folding process similar to that used in a pop-up book or origami. It layered carbon fiber material and polymer film into a flat sheet, and then cut the design into the sheet using a laser.
The design includes scaffolding that pops up and pulls the 2D pattern into a 3D shape in which the different parts fold together.
Connected to the wings of the insect are tiny ceramic “muscles” that expand and contract when an electric field is applied, causing the wings to flap. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints.
The wings themselves are made from thin polyester film reinforced with carbon fiber ribs.
The robot insect, which takes about two days to make and can fly for 20 seconds, is tethered to the ground by its power source and connected to a computer that guides its flight.
There are currently no batteries small enough to fit the robot. The smallest batteries on the market with enough power to fly RoboBee weigh about half a gram, and are far too heavy. Yet Ma believes that the battery obstacle will be overcome within the next five to ten years.
Harvard engineers are already busy making more advanced prototypes and plan to work with other research teams studying insect biology and behavior.
Eventually it’s hoped that a “brain” that can be mounted on the robot’s body so that the insects can fly autonomously.
Coming to a field or garden near you? More than likely. One day.