Robotic insects take to the skies

Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it leaps a few inches, hovers for a moment on fragile, flapping wings, and then speeds along a preset route through the air.

The demonstration of the first controlled flight of an insect-sized robot is the culmination of more than a decade’s work, led by researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, said Pakpong Chirarattananon, co-lead author of a paper published this week in Science.

“This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years,” explained Robert J. Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, Wyss Core Faculty Member, and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported RoboBee project.

“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.”

Inspired by the biology of a fly, with submillimeter-scale anatomy and two wafer-thin wings that flap almost invisibly, 120 times per second, the tiny device not only represents the absolute cutting edge of micromanufacturing and control systems; it is an aspiration that has impelled innovation in these fields by dozens of researchers across Harvard for years.

“We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything,” explains Wood. “We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target.”

“Large robots can run on electromagnetic motors, but at this small scale you have to come up with an alternative, and there wasn’t one,” says co-lead author Kevin Y. Ma, a graduate student at SEAS.

The tiny robot flaps its wings with piezoelectric actuators—strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real-time.

At tiny scales, small changes in airflow can have an outsized effect on flight dynamics, and the control system has to react that much faster to remain stable.

The robotic insects also take advantage of an ingenious pop-up manufacturing technique that was developed by Wood’s team in 2011. Sheets of various laser-cut materials are layered and sandwiched together into a thin, flat plate that folds up like a child’s pop-up book into the complete electromechanical structure.

The quick, step-by-step process replaces what used to be a painstaking manual art and allows Wood’s team to use more robust materials in new combinations, while improving the overall precision of each device.

“We can now very rapidly build reliable prototypes, which allows us to be more aggressive in how we test them,” says Ma, adding that the team has gone through 20 prototypes in just the past six months.

Applications of the RoboBee project could include distributed environmental monitoring, search-and-rescue operations, or assistance with crop pollination, but the materials, fabrication techniques, and components that emerge along the way might prove to be even more significant. For example, the pop-up manufacturing process could enable a new class of complex medical devices. Harvard’s Office of Technology Development, in collaboration with Harvard SEAS and the Wyss Institute, is already in the process of commercializing some of the underlying technologies.

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