Harvard Scientists Create a Robot Bee That Swims and Flies

Wednesday, 25 October 2017 - 6:36PM
Technology
Robotics
Wednesday, 25 October 2017 - 6:36PM
Harvard Scientists Create a Robot Bee That Swims and Flies
YouTube/Harvard University
Bees are our friends - they help pollinate the crops that make our food, they produce delicious honey, and they look cute with their striped, fuzzy backsides (even if their stingers make them tough to hug in real life).

Scientists at Harvard University are clearly fans of bees too, as they've created a teeny tiny artificial insect that they've named "RoboBee". Unlike Robocop, this pint-sized mechanical wonder isn't an insect that's been augmented with cyber enhancements, but rather a wholly mechanical device with beautiful artificial wings that look just like the real thing.

In some ways, RoboBee is actually capable of doing things that regular bees can't, such as going for a swim. Real bees are easily drowned by water, which clings to their tiny wings and makes it difficult to get back on their six feet after they've been splashed. They're not able to move easily in water, and afterwards, it takes a while for the poor little things to dry off.

Unlike a real bee, RoboBee comes equipped with floatation devices, and the ability to power itself through water:



One big challenge that Harvard's scientists faced was how to get such a tiny robot airborne again after a swim. RoboBee suffers from the same challenge as real bees - its tiny wings and weak, wobbly little body find it difficult to fight against the surface tension of water, and as such, RoboBee can't actually kick itself up out of a pool once it's been swimming.

A pretty ingenious solution to this problem was finally found: RoboBee is able to float on the top of the water while its wings dry, and then once it's ready to attempt flight, a tiny miniature spark ignites within RoboBee, giving it a quick burst of energy that pushes it upwards and out of the water. Let's see a real bee try that!

The versatility of this creature means that its creators think it may be useful in studying animal habitats and other environments - because it's nice and tiny, it can get into places that humans would struggle with, much like other, similar creepy-crawly themed robots that have been produced.

The only big problem at present is that RoboBee is too small to be able to carry much of a battery. At present, in order to keep the tiny little thing airborne, scientists are having to power it from an external battery that's connected by a cord, as any built-in energy solution would weigh the drone down too much for it to fly.

Obviously, a tiny drone that's forcibly attached to a thin cable isn't going to be useful for an awful lot of scouting missions, but the scientists are hopeful that they'll find a solution eventually - this might be a good opportunity to try out a renewable energy source, should solar panels get smaller and lighter in the near future.

In the meantime, it's nice to think about what RoboBee could be put to work doing in our daily lives. Sadly, it wouldn't be able to run errands for human owners (it's far too small for that), but with organic bee populations dwindling despite our best efforts to the contrary, synthetic bees may be the solution to ensuring that farming isn't unduly affected if the worst should happen and we lose even more of these creatures.
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