World’s Smallest Fly-Inspired RoboBee Makes First Controlled Flight

First Posted: May 03, 2013 04:38 AM EDT

A team of engineers from Harvard University have built the world's smallest aerial drones that are half the size of a paper clip and weigh less than a tenth of a gram after a decade of hard work.

Inspired by the biology of a fly, the world's first smallest controllable, flying, insect-sized robot known as 'RoboBee' was designed using a technique known as 'smart composite microstructure' (SCM). It consists of a submillimeter scale anatomy and two wafer-thin wings that have the capacity to flap 129 times per second.

This fascinating device was built by a mechanical engineer Robert Wood from Harvard University, together with Harvard grad student Kevin Ma.


"This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years. "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," Robert J. Wood, principal investigator of the RoboBee project, said in a press statement

During the display of its first flight, it was seen how the RoboBee jumped a few inches, floated for a moment on delicate flapping wings and then headed along a specific direction through the air. It is because of the piezoelectric actuators that the robot flaps its wings. Piezoelectric acutuators are strips made of ceramic that are capable of expanding when an electric field is applied. The joints are made up of thin hinges of plastic implanted within a carbon fibre body frame. The rotational motions of the flapping wings robot are managed by the balanced control system. In this, each wing is controlled independently in real time.

The significant uses for the RoboBee include search and rescue operations, help with crop pollination and distributed environmental monitoring.

"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," says Wood.

The team involved in the creation of RoboBee hopes that this innovation helps in understanding entomology and developmental biology.

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