Penny-Sized Pop-Up Robots Mimic Flying Insects, Could Save Lives

Harvard Microrobotics Lab /Video screen capture

How do you make a robotic insect that can fit on a penny? Researchers at Harvard have an idea. They've looked to the ancient art of origami. The techniques used for folding paper into 3D structures are the inspiration for folding layer upon layer of carbon fiber, a plastic film, titanium, brass, ceramic, and adhesive sheets in a laser-cut design.

Harvard Microrobotics Lab/Video screen capture

At the end of the layering process, the insect can be popped up from the extra material. Once the insect is folded into shape and popped up, the connections are cut and the miniscule insect, known as a Micro Air Vehicle, or MAV, is ready to go.

Harvard Microrobotics Lab/Video screen capture

As Discovery News reports, "This new method will make it faster and cheaper to mass produce these tiny flying robots, perhaps allowing swarms of them to one day pollinate crops, investigate chemical spills or search for missing hikers."

The Harvard Crimson elaborates: "[D]uring a search and rescue mission for a nuclear disaster, where humans rescuers would be put in danger, hundreds of these MAVs could be sent into the area to search for survivors. With the ability to maneuver into small spaces within the debris, MAVs would be able to detect carbon dioxide gas and report the location of the survivors."

Harvard Microrobotics Lab/Video screen capture

"The robots themselves are an interesting goal," said Rob Wood, professor of electrical engineering at Harvard University. "But what gets us excited are the open scientific questions that we have to look into in the course of the research and the engineering challenges to get these things to work."

Now that there is a savvy way to create these miniature insects, the team wants to figure out how to make an automated manufacturing line. The more precision in manufacturing, the easier it will be to get the robotic bugs to fly, and fly in an energy-efficient manner. Right now, they're still stuck on the ground.

Here is a video showing the complex manufacturing process:

Eventually the researchers hope that these tiny insects can help with a range of search and rescue operations, or environmental pollution monitoring and control. However, perhaps more important than answering the questions of manufacturing is the question of what happens after the bugs are ready to fly. Woods notes that it would be great to have these robotic insects so cheap an easy to make that they're considered disposable. Having thousands of these things flying around -- and getting broken and lost all over the place -- sounds like a bit of an e-waste nightmare. Considering any electronic device to be disposable is problematic. And the idea of using robots to pollinate crops because we killed all the bees is just downright depressing.

It's exciting to see the creativity put into devising such an interesting manufacturing process that creates nature-inspired robots, and the idea that they could be used to save lives is fantastic. But whether or not these will really be helpful to the environment is another matter.

Tags: Concepts & Prototypes | Electronics | Gadgets