Friday, May 3, 2013

Micro Robots Take to the Airwaves

Possibilities are endless with new bug size robots that are likely to fly the earth over in search of helping victims, fixing hard to reach equipment, and helping to capture bad guys. New technology offers the opportunity to move into the era of micro-robotics. What was once science fiction now becomes science after many years of design, failure, and eventual success.  This article introduces the robot that is almost the size of a fly. Both the process and the product helps to further science and industry.

The smallest robot man has ever made recently took flight at Harvard University. Robobee, as it has been termed, weights 1/10th a gram and is less than 3 centimeters wide. It is expected that such a robot will be able to help with a number of different situations such as farming, search and rescue, and monitoring.  With such a dainty size it could be put to use in thousands of places once it has been fully developed.

Infrared cameras were placed around the room and picked up on tiny reflective strips on Robobee to determine both direction and flight position. The information was sent back to the main processing computer that helped to adjust movement. At present the method has some limitations for use in a natural environment as there will not be external cameras to control Robobee. The use of an internal camera and the use of GPS will need to be integrated for it to have practical utility on a wide scale.

The information from the processing computer was sent through a tiny wire to the bee to adjust its flight. When it turned right it would speed up its left wing velocity and when it wanted to turn left it would speed up its right wing velocity. The change in air current allowed for the bee to swing in different directions. In the future, Robobee will likely have a small battery and a remote control system.

The May 2013 Journal of Science offers the abstract for readers (May, Chiraratananon, Fuller & Wood, 2013:

Flies are among the most agile flying creatures on Earth. To mimic this aerial prowess in a similarly sized robot requires tiny, high-efficiency mechanical components that pose miniaturization challenges governed by force-scaling laws, suggesting unconventional solutions for propulsion, actuation, and manufacturing. To this end, we developed high-power-density piezoelectric flight muscles and a manufacturing methodology capable of rapidly prototyping articulated, flexure-based sub-millimeter mechanisms. We built an 80-milligram, insect-scale, flapping-wing robot modeled loosely on the morphology of flies. Using a modular approach to flight control that relies on limited information about the robot’s dynamics, we demonstrated tethered but unconstrained stable hovering and basic controlled flight maneuvers. The result validates a sufficient suite of innovations for achieving artificial, insect-like flight.

Out of the study came another finding about the process of manufacturing the bee. Using a newly patented concept called pop-up fabrication the robot was constructed in layers that were then shaped through cutting the edges off with a lazer. With a robot of this size the micro nature of the parts made the project difficult with over 10 years being spent in its production. The hope is that pop-up fabrication will be used to make medical devices that also have tiny parts.

Robobee offers a chance to see how innovation started in universities eventually makes its way into the commercial market. New technology has been developed and as it becomes refined companies will likely seek the technology to develop new products. Initial discoveries are always expensive and as standardization takes place the price of the product begins to come down. The same is true for the robot and the process.

If you see Robobee at a doorway near you please do not swat him!

(May, K.  Chiraratananon, P., Fuller, S. & Wood, R. (May, 2013) Controlled Flight of biologically inspired insect-scale robot.  Science, 340 (6132). Retrieved May 3rd, 2013 from

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