It took over a decade of work, but robotics researchers at Harvard have achieved a first: they’ve created robotic insects that are capable of flying. A paper describing their work is being published in this week’s Science.
Lead researcher Robert J. Wood has been working on this project for 12 years. The robot itself is smaller than a paperclip and weighs about a third of an ounce. Its wings beat 120 times per second, enabling it to fly on its own according to a pre-set flight path.
The robots alone aren’t the only breakthrough here. Just building them required the team, which comprised dozens of people over the years, to develop new fabrication techniques to build each piece of the robot. The main body of it is carbon fiber, with small pieces of plastic serving as “joints” to attach the body to the wing.
Those robotic bodies were developed using what Harvard calls a “pop-up fabrication” technique – so-called because the inspiration for them were the pop-up books that we read when we were little kids. This technique puts together the robot one thin layer of material at a time, then cuts them with a laser. Harvard has patented the technique and is currently working on commercializing it as a way to mass produce small, complex medical devices.
As for the robotic insects, the next stem for the team is to develop a way to allow the robots to fly wirelessly – right now, they’re still connected to control devices by a small wire. The end goal of the project is for the robotic insects to autonomously behave as a swarm. Those swarms could be used for agricultural pollination, search & rescue operations, and other similar projects.
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