RO­BOT­ICS MAKES A BEE­LINE FOR NA­TURE’S BLUE­PRINTS

Guru Magazine - - Contents - ROSS HARPER

That fly­ing in­sect could be watch­ing you. Ross Harper looks at the buzz be­hind a new Har­vard-de­signed ro­bot bee. In­spired by na­ture, it is set to fly high.

Ro­bots are cool. They roll, beep, buzz – and when you ask them pro­found philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions, their heads ex­plode. Or so Hol­ly­wood would have you be­lieve. But whereas fic­tion prides it­self on the weird and wacky, the re­al­ity is that na­ture got it right first time. In­spired by the bi­ol­ogy of a bee, Har­vard

Univer­sity’s ‘RoboBee’ neatly demon­strates the

value of na­ture’s orig­i­nal blue­prints. Not much

big­ger than a pound coin or nickel, RoboBee is a tri­umph of mi­cro­robotics, and sports some stag­ger­ingly in­ge­nious fea­tures borne out of its nec­es­sar­ily small size.

Un­like other ro­bots, RoboBees are not built, but printed. Their 3D struc­ture (in­clud­ing a mo­tor) is ma­chine-pro­duced onto a me­tal sheet and then ‘popped’ into shape, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to pro­duce swarms of the tiny ma­chines breath­tak­ingly quickly. RoboBee also uses some ground­break­ing fly­ing tech­nol­ogy, mak­ing use of some­thing called a ‘hy­brid power con­trol ac­tu­a­tor’. This al­lows the tiny airfoil wings to drive the ve­hi­cle as well as steer it, un­like in con­ven­tional air­craft such as air­planes, where the tur­bines and rud­ders are sep­a­rate en­ti­ties. But why bother go­ing to so much ef­fort to mimic Mother Na­ture? Don’t we al­ready have per­fectly ad­e­quate so­lu­tions to the prob­lem

of flight? Well, not quite. RoboBee has more ma­neu­ver­abil­ity than other sim­i­lar-sized air ve­hi­cles that use pro­pel­lers, and is also less likely to break (as ro­tat­ing parts have a ten­dency to get jammed). But Har­vard is not the only lab cur­rently be­ing guided by na­ture: there are spi­der-bots for nav­i­gat­ing un­even ter­rain, han­dling de­vices that are modeled on an ele­phant’s trunk, and (laugh­ably) float­ing pen­guins that swim through the air. Th­ese ma­chines have the po­ten­tial to be­come as tai­lored to their sur­round­ings as their bi­o­log­i­cal coun­ter­parts, and could there­fore have

im­por­tant uses – RoboBee, for ex­am­ple, has ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions for search and res­cue. It isn’t merely about de­vel­op­ing ex­cit­ing new tech­nolo­gies: th­ese bio-in­spired ro­bots can also en­hance our un­der­stand­ing of the crea­tures they mimic. The bet­ter a ma­chine is able to im­i­tate the be­hav­ior of an an­i­mal, the more likely it is to go un­no­ticed by the an­i­mal it­self, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to bet­ter ob­serve or­gan­isms in their nat­u­ral habi­tat. This prin­ci­ple could even have im­pli­ca­tions in the mil­i­tary sphere: a ro­bot that can con­vince an an­i­mal it is one of them is more likely to con­vince a radar dish of the same thing.

The one thing that RoboBee still needs to be able to fly out of the lab is a power source small enough to carry on­board. Even the most com­pact of to­day’s bat­ter­ies are too heavy, leav­ing the lat­est ro­bots teth­ered to a fine power ca­ble. It seems we still have a bit more to learn from Mother Na­ture.

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