For many years, scientists have worked to create aerial robots inspired by bees and other flying insects. This has proven difficult, because when you get down to the insect’s scale, it’s hard to generate enough thrust to enable it to carry its own power source. But, a new robot has taken flight and it’s creating a bit of a buzz – The RoboBee X-Wing.
With a wing span of just 3 cm and the weight of about a quarter paperclip, batteries are too heavy for it to carry. So, researchers at Harvard University used ultra light-weight solar cells. These generate power and send it to a control board that operates a pair of piezoelectric actuators. These actuators work a bit like a muscle and contract when a voltage passes across them. Two actuators working together can bend back and forth to flap the robot’s wings. This allows the RoboBee to flutter about freely, whereas previous versions needed to be leashed to a power supply.
“We wanted to keep pushing the limit on how much power we could squeeze out of the artificial muscles in the robot, and how efficient we could make the whole system,” said Noah Jafferis, a postdoctoral engineer at Harvard and one of the leaders of the research.
So far, each of the RoboBee’s test flights have only lasted a couple of seconds and required more than twice the energy contained in sunlight. But they represent an important milestone for flight at such a small scale. One of the robot’s shortcomings is that it still can’t store energy. As soon as it flies out of a well-lit area, it slows down and falls to the ground.
Researchers are hoping that with further advances in engineering, the RoboBee will be able to achieve continuous outdoor flight. This will allow it to help with environmental and disaster monitoring. It could be used to take air quality measurements, help search collapsed buildings for survivors, or even be deployed in swarms.