Flying Robotic Bees Are Here!

Bill Weir, Andrew Lampard, David Miller, Brian Fudge
This Could Be Big
Flying Robotic Bees Are Here!

It’s that time of year again: the insects are back. But this summer we’re seeing a new breed of flying bug -- robotic bees!

Inspired by actual flying insects, a team at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have just successfully tested the RoboBee, an autonomous, robotic bug that can fly.

Possessing the same size, mass and weight of a large house fly or bumble bee, the RoboBee will eventually have the ability to fly around in large swarms and perform beneficial tasks, like assisting humans in agricultural production and exploring hazardous environments.

But that is still 20 to 30 years away, says Prof. Robert Wood, who leads the Harvard team of researchers and students responsible for creating and testing the RoboBee. For now, RoboBee is tethered to a power source and controlled by a computer inside a lab.

One of their initial goals was get the RoboBee to hover, which proved exceedingly difficult because the fragile robots are unstable. Wood said the RoboBee can now fly up to ten seconds before breaking.

“One of the reasons we love this project is because it has so many engineering challenges,” Wood said. ”We’re trying to solve these interesting problems, ranging from microfabrication, small-scale power, new sensors, new actuators, new forms of computation, [and] coordination algorithms.”

Wood began the project more than 10 years ago as PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. He said he got the idea from a documentary about disappearing bee colonies: “My colleagues had recently seen a documentary called ‘The Silence of the Bees,’ which was describing this colony collapse disorder. We thought, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if there was some way we could engineer some sort of assistance to this.”

Woods continued his research on the RoboBee at Harvard after joining its faculty. He said his team’s biggest obstacle was inventing the micro-technology required to fabricate robots of this scale. All of the actuators, wings and mechanisms inside the robots were made from scratch.

“What really gets us excited [are] the fundamental technologies that needed to be developed along the way,” Woods said.

Beyond the technological implications of the RoboBee, he hopes a project this cool will attract swarms of kids to the engineering field. To learn how the RoboBee flies, watch the video above this article.