While drones have understandably garnered a great deal of attention in the last few years, they are not the only autonomous aerial device under development. For instance, the National Science Foundation have been supporting a number of projects to develop insect like devices to perform everything from reconnaissance to artificial pollination.
Despite flying under the radar, the machines are becoming increasingly capable. The RoboBees, as they’re known, are rapidly advancing towards an autonomous state, with progress being made in everything from micro-manufacturing to small-scale energy storage.
Of course, the idea of bioinspired robotics is not a new one, and I wrote recently about a team from the University of Sheffield who used bees as the inspiration for a range of robotic characteristics. Bees offer clues into all manner of things, from self-launching to navigation that are crucial for robots to master.
“Bees and other social insects provide a fascinating model for engineered systems that can maneuver in unstructured environments, sense their surroundings, communicate and perform complex tasks as a collective full of relatively simple individuals,” the team said. “The RoboBees project grew out of this inspiration and has developed solutions to numerous fundamental challenges—challenges that are motivated by the small scale of the individual and large scale of the collective.”
The RoboBee weighs in at around 84 milligrams, which is around the same weight as an actual bee. As the project has developed, the team have given the RobeBee many new capabilities, including an ability to swim. Indeed, their latest iteration was capable of perching during flight in order to save energy, much as animals such as bats do.
“The use of adhesives that are controllable without complex physical mechanisms, are low power, and can adhere to a large array of surfaces is perfect for robots that are agile yet have limited payload—like the RoboBee,” the team said. “When making robots the size of insects, simplicity and low power are always key constraints.”
The sticky quality of the bee is achieved by the use of electrostatic adhesion that allows the devices to attach themselves to any surface.
The Potential for Microbots
The microbots have a huge range of potential applications, including gaining access to previously inaccessible locations. The ability to save energy however is crucially important to allow for as many possible applications as possible.
What’s more, the team have also managed to utilize their technology in other, seemingly unconnected domains.
“We have had some nice successes with translation of some of the technologies that emerged from the RoboBees project,” they explain. “For example, several of the RoboBees principal investigators are now participating in a DARPA-sponsored project making new surgical tools based on the popup microfabrication technologies developed in the RoboBees project.”
Despite this progress however, the team suggest it will be another five to 10 years before the bees are suitable for real world use. With a long-term investment into the technology however, they remain confident that it will deliver a sustainable impact. It will certainly be a fascinating project to keep tabs on.