Science in Mind

Harvard researchers build robotic fly that lifts off

Harvard University researchers have for the first time replicated in a tiny, bug-like robot the agility of the common fly. With a gossamer body of micro-scale electronics, the penny-sized robot can lift off, hover, and maneuver—albeit only while tethered to a leash that supplies power and provides information about its location in mid-air.

“It’s the goal of creating the most agile man-made thing that’s ever existed,” said Rob Wood, an engineering professor at Harvard and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

The progress reported Thursday in the journal Science is the culmination of more than a decade of work, and is an important step toward a goal first outlined in a $10 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation: to create a colony of RoboBees that can fly by themselves and coordinate their collective movements to achieve tasks. It is still unclear what the best application would be for a fleet of airborne bug-sized robots, but the technology could have a wide range of uses, from surveillance to pollinating crops.

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Wood says he tries to steer clear of discussing the applications of his wing-flapping fly robots, in part because he’s wary of the bias that appears in nearly every work of science fiction. Once a robot appears in the plot, Wood notes, things most likely won’t end well for the people. He doesn’t see that as an issue for his tiny robots.

For one thing, the delicate feats of flying are impressive, but they’re not all that robust yet. Nearly every trial ends with a crash, and the RoboBee protoypes don’t last forever. When pressed, he says possible future applications of such technology include situations where it might be too hazardous to send a person, whether it’s search and rescue or a hazardous environment.

But even that won’t be forthcoming anytime soon; Wood said it’ll be years before swarms of insect robots become viable. Wood sees the real rewards of his robot-building efforts in technologies that may have little to do with mimicking insect flight: the lighter, smaller electronic components necessary to build the robots could spur a new generation of gadgets.

A former student has founded a Cambridge startup company called Vibrant Research that is working on commercializing some of the technologies and manufacturing techniques developed in the laboratory.

The work is still far from completion: the flies do not have their own sensors on board their slight electronic bodies, in addition to relying on an external power source.

Vijay Kumar, an engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the work, said the new study was an important demonstration of the feasibility of insect-sized flying robots.

“I hope some day we will have robots like this [to] help with search and rescue, disaster response and law enforcement,” Kumar wrote in an e-mail. In his laboratory, he has been working on building robot swarms, and he noted that his own robots could be far smaller and more dextrous if they could be made more like insects.

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