Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Robotic insects make first controlled flight

03.05.2013
In culmination of a decade's work, RoboBees achieve vertical takeoff, hovering, and steering

In the very early hours of the morning, in a Harvard robotics laboratory last summer, an insect took flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it leapt a few inches, hovered for a moment on fragile, flapping wings, and then sped along a preset route through the air.


The RoboBees 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 Harvard engineering professor Robert J. Wood. "You might not expect all of these people to work together: vision experts, biologists, materials scientists, electrical engineers. What do they have in common? Well, they all enjoy solving really hard problems."

Credit: Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard University.

Like a proud parent watching a child take its first steps, graduate student Pakpong Chirarattananon immediately captured a video of the fledgling and emailed it to his adviser and colleagues at 3 a.m.—subject line, "Flight of the RoboBee."

"I was so excited, I couldn't sleep," recalls Chirarattananon, co-lead author of a paper published this week in Science.

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.

"This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years," says 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."

Flight muscles, for instance, don't come prepackaged for robots the size of a fingertip.

"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.

"Harnessing biology to solve real-world problems is what the Wyss Institute is all about," says Wyss Founding Director Don Ingber. "This work is a beautiful example of how bringing together scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines to carry out research inspired by nature and focused on translation can lead to major technical breakthroughs."

And the project continues.
"Now that we've got this unique platform, there are dozens of tests that we're starting to do, including more aggressive control maneuvers and landing," says Wood.

After that, the next steps will involve integrating the parallel work of many different research teams who are working on the brain, the colony coordination behavior, the power source, and so on, until the robotic insects are fully autonomous and wireless.

The prototypes are still tethered by a very thin power cable because there are no off-the-shelf solutions for energy storage that are small enough to be mounted on the robot's body. High energy-density fuel cells must be developed before the RoboBees will be able to fly with much independence.

Control, too, is still wired in from a separate computer, though a team led by SEAS faculty Gu-Yeon Wei and David Brooks is working on a computationally efficient brain that can be mounted on the robot's frame.

"Flies perform some of the most amazing aerobatics in nature using only tiny brains," notes coauthor Sawyer B. Fuller, a postdoctoral researcher on Wood's team who essentially studies how fruit flies cope with windy days. "Their capabilities exceed what we can do with our robot, so we would like to understand their biology better and apply it to our own work."

The milestone of this first controlled flight represents a validation of the power of ambitious dreams—especially for Wood, who was in graduate school when he set this goal.

"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. "You might not expect all of these people to work together: vision experts, biologists, materials scientists, electrical engineers. What do they have in common? Well, they all enjoy solving really hard problems."

"I want to create something the world has never seen before," adds Ma. "It's about the excitement of pushing the limits of what we think we can do, the limits of human ingenuity."

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

HARVARD SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING AND APPLIED SCIENCES

The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) serves as the connector and integrator of Harvard's teaching and research efforts in engineering, applied sciences, and technology. Through collaboration with researchers from all parts of Harvard, other universities, and corporate and foundational partners, we bring discovery and innovation directly to bear on improving human life and society. For more information, visit: http://seas.harvard.edu.

WYSS INSTITUTE FOR BIOLOGICALLY INSPIRED ENGINEERING AT HARVARD

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University (http://wyss.harvard.edu) uses Nature's design principles to develop bioinspired materials and devices that will transform medicine and create a more sustainable world. Working as an alliance among Harvard's Schools of Medicine, Engineering, and Arts & Sciences, and in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston Children's Hospital, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Boston University and Tufts University, the Institute crosses disciplinary and institutional barriers to engage in high-risk research that leads to transformative technological breakthroughs. By emulating Nature's principles, Wyss researchers are developing innovative new engineering solutions for healthcare, energy, architecture, robotics, and manufacturing. These technologies are translated into commercial products and therapies through collaborations with clinical investigators, corporate alliances, and new start-ups. The Wyss Institute recently won the prestigious World Technology Network award for innovation in biotechnology.

Caroline Perry | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.seas.harvard.edu

More articles from Innovative Products:

nachricht A ski jacket that actively gets rid of sweat
30.01.2018 | Empa - Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt

nachricht A fashionable chemical and biological threat detector-on-a-ring
12.10.2017 | American Chemical Society

All articles from Innovative Products >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: AchemAsia 2019 will take place in Shanghai

Moving into its fourth decade, AchemAsia is setting out for new horizons: The International Expo and Innovation Forum for Sustainable Chemical Production will take place from 21-23 May 2019 in Shanghai, China. With an updated event profile, the eleventh edition focusses on topics that are especially relevant for the Chinese process industry, putting a strong emphasis on sustainability and innovation.

Founded in 1989 as a spin-off of ACHEMA to cater to the needs of China’s then developing industry, AchemAsia has since grown into a platform where the latest...

Im Focus: First real-time test of Li-Fi utilization for the industrial Internet of Things

The BMBF-funded OWICELLS project was successfully completed with a final presentation at the BMW plant in Munich. The presentation demonstrated a Li-Fi communication with a mobile robot, while the robot carried out usual production processes (welding, moving and testing parts) in a 5x5m² production cell. The robust, optical wireless transmission is based on spatial diversity; in other words, data is sent and received simultaneously by several LEDs and several photodiodes. The system can transmit data at more than 100 Mbit/s and five milliseconds latency.

Modern production technologies in the automobile industry must become more flexible in order to fulfil individual customer requirements.

Im Focus: Sharp images with flexible fibers

An international team of scientists has discovered a new way to transfer image information through multimodal fibers with almost no distortion - even if the fiber is bent. The results of the study, to which scientist from the Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology Jena (Leibniz IPHT) contributed, were published on 6thJune in the highly-cited journal Physical Review Letters.

Endoscopes allow doctors to see into a patient’s body like through a keyhole. Typically, the images are transmitted via a bundle of several hundreds of optical...

Im Focus: Photoexcited graphene puzzle solved

A boost for graphene-based light detectors

Light detection and control lies at the heart of many modern device applications, such as smartphone cameras. Using graphene as a light-sensitive material for...

Im Focus: Water is not the same as water

Water molecules exist in two different forms with almost identical physical properties. For the first time, researchers have succeeded in separating the two forms to show that they can exhibit different chemical reactivities. These results were reported by researchers from the University of Basel and their colleagues in Hamburg in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

From a chemical perspective, water is a molecule in which a single oxygen atom is linked to two hydrogen atoms. It is less well known that water exists in two...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Munich conference on asteroid detection, tracking and defense

13.06.2018 | Event News

2nd International Baltic Earth Conference in Denmark: “The Baltic Sea region in Transition”

08.06.2018 | Event News

ISEKI_Food 2018: Conference with Holistic View of Food Production

05.06.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Novel method for investigating pore geometry in rocks

18.06.2018 | Earth Sciences

Diamond watch components

18.06.2018 | Process Engineering

New type of photosynthesis discovered

18.06.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>