(NaturalNews) It's been more than a decade in the making, but now Harvard University researchers have developed a tiny flying drone that is barely larger than a quarter.
Robotics researchers at the Ivy League school have achieved a first, reports Forbes: the creation of robotic insects that are capable of flight. A paper detailing their work was recently published in the journal Science. Here's an abstract of the research:
Flies are among the most agile flying creatures on Earth. To mimic this aerial prowess in a similarly sized robot requires tiny, high-efficiency mechanical components that pose miniaturization challenges governed by force-scaling laws, suggesting unconventional solutions for propulsion, actuation, and manufacturing. To this end, we developed high-power-density piezoelectric flight muscles and a manufacturing methodology capable of rapidly prototyping articulated, flexure-based sub-millimeter mechanisms.
We built an 80-milligram, insect-scale, flapping-wing robot modeled loosely on the morphology of flies. Using a modular approach to flight control that relies on limited information about the robot's dynamics, we demonstrated tethered but unconstrained stable hovering and basic controlled flight maneuvers. The result validates a sufficient suite of innovations for achieving artificial, insect-like flight.
Robert J. Wood, the lead researcher on the project, has been working on it for a dozen years. The robot is smaller than a paperclip and weighs just one-third of an ounce. It's "wings" are capable of beating 120 times per second, "enabling to fly on its own according to a pre-set flight path," Forbes columnist Alex Knapp, a technology writer, said.
There are more breakthroughs to the project than simply the robotics. Merely building them required the research team, which involved scores of people over the years, to develop new techniques of fabrication at each stage of the tiny robot's construction.
Its main body consists of carbon fiber, with small plastic pieces that serve as "joints" which attach the body to the wing (see it fly here).
The robotic bodies were developed by a process Harvard is calling a "pop-up fabrication" technique, so named because the inspiration for them came from pop-up books many of us ready as children.
The fabrication technique calls for the assembly of the robot one thin layer of material at a time, cutting each with a laser. Harvard has gone onto patent the technique "and is currently working on commercializing it as a way to mass produce small, complex medical devices," Forbes' Knapp reports.
"This takes what is a craft, an artisanal process, and transforms it for automated mass production," Pratheev Sreetharan, who co-developed the technique with J. Peter Whitney, said. Both are doctoral candidates at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, according to a university press release.
'We can generate full systems'
The next step for the robotic insects, Knapp says, is for the research team to develop a way to allow the robots to fly without a wire attached; for now, they are still connected to control devices by a thin wire. In the end, the goal of the project is for the robotic insects to behave autonomously as a swarm. The swarms might then be used for agricultural pollination, search and rescue operations and similar projects.
Drone technology has been miniaturizing for years. The Harvard team has set a new standard.
"Our new techniques allow us to use any material including polymers, metals, ceramics, and composites," principal investigator Rob Wood, an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at SEAS and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, told the university.
"The ability to incorporate any type and number of material layers, along with integrated electronics, means that we can generate full systems in any three-dimensional shape," said Wood. "We've also demonstrated that we can create self-assembling devices by including pre-stressed materials."
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