The RoboBee is the size of an insect, and it flies like one. Scientists and engineers intent on developing a tiny flying self-directed robot looked to the bee for inspiration. Another unlikely source is children’s pop-up books as the individual RoboBee begins with its parts in a plane. Currently, the tethered RoboBees weigh less than four thousandths of an ounce. The goal is to have the power source be self-contained, but due to the size limit the power would last less than a half hour. Extending the flying time is critical for the intended applications.
The RoboBee was designed for
- Search and rescue missions, particularly after disasters like earthquakes
- High-resolution weather and climate mapping
- Traffic monitoring
- Crop pollination as a stop-gap measure until we can prevent bee colonies from dying. This is said to be up to 20 years off, and at a prohibitive cost for the number of RoboBees required.
Recently RoboBee scientists have found a way to extend flight time by engineering the Bees to rest by perching on leaves or other stationary objects while they survey an area. They perch or stick via electrostatic charge.
Moritz A. Graule, a doctoral student at M.I.T., worked on the perching problem under Robert J. Wood at Harvard, the leader of the team that developed the RoboBee. Dr. Wood and other scientists reported that adding a bit of foam as well as the electrostatic patch saved computing power as the landing need not be so accurately calculated.
Further, the RoboBees are intended to behave like a colony, namely coordinating behavior to accomplish goals. The questions of how bees communicate and make decisions are being studied for relevance to the project.
The research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The research team includes scientists from the fields of biology, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer science. The team believes that “crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries facilitates new discovery.” The team is exploring fundamental questions in materials science, fluid mechanics, controls, circuit design, manufacturing, and computer science. The efforts to create intelligent behavior with limited power have technological ramifications for the efficiency and design of custom circuits such as those used in cell phones. The pop-up fabrication technique is being used to design new medical devices for minimally invasive surgery.
Best of all, RoboBee demonstrations have excited school children about science.