Harvard's Robobee Can Fly, Pitch and Roll Like a Real Bee

Harvard Microrobotics Lab/Video screen capture

These past few weeks, bees have gotten a lot of attention in the tech world. First, bumblebee flight paths were being studied to make things like faster computers, then the honey bee brain was being analyzed and modeled for future use in autonomous flying robotics. Now, scientists at Harvard University have a robotic bee that can take off and pitch and roll in different directions.

The main difference between those first two projects and the Harvard one is that the previous two were studies that could lead to cool technology applications in the future, while Harvard has wing-flapping robotic bees in their labs right now.

From the Harvard Robobees project:

Coordinated agile robotic insects can be used for a variety of purposes including:

autonomously pollinating a field of crops;
search and rescue (e.g., in the aftermath of a natural disaster);
hazardous environment exploration;
military surveillance;
high resolution weather and climate mapping; and
traffic monitoring.

These are the ubiquitous applications typically invoked in the development of autonomous robots. However, in mimicking the physical and behavioral robustness of insect groups by coordinating large numbers of small, agile robots, we will be able to accomplish such tasks faster, more reliably, and more efficiently.

The Harvard Robobees project has actually been going on since 2009, where researchers have been working on micro air vehicles inspired by insects to take on those several tasks. Back in February, we reported on the pop-up manufacturing technique that Harvard's microrobotic labs are using to make these robotic insects. Layer upon layer of carbon fiber, a plastic film, titanium, brass, ceramic, and adhesive sheets are folded into a laser-cut design and when the layering is done, the bee can be popped up out of the mold, folded into shape and it's ready to go.

At the time, though their wings could flap, the robobees were still grounded, but now the project has hit a major milestone with a robotic bee that can not only take off, but be steered. Gizmag reports, "The tiny robot was already capable of taking off under its own power, but until now it was completely out of control. By adding two control actuators beneath its wings, the robot can be programmed to pitch and roll.

The team is now working on a feedback controller that will allow the robot to yaw, which when combined with pitch and roll should allow it to hover."

Watch the video below to see it in action.

You may be thinking that the robobee doesn't stay up for long, but what you're seeing is quite amazing. A life-size robotic bee that can take off and be controlled. When we discuss these types of flying biomimetic robots, they're typically years away from becoming reality, but Harvard has a prototype making tangible steps to becoming part of a sensor-carrying, patrolling robobee swarm.

Tags: Biomimicry | Technology