Robotic Insect Takes Off for the First Time

Researchers at Harvard have created a robotic fly that could one day be used for covert surveillance and detecting toxic chemicals.

A life-size, robotic fly has taken flight at Harvard University. Weighing only 60 milligrams, with a wingspan of three centimeters, the tiny robot’s movements are modeled on those of a real fly. While much work remains to be done on the mechanical insect, the researchers say that such small flying machines could one day be used as spies, or for detecting harmful chemicals.

“Nature makes the world’s best fliers,” says Robert Wood, leader of Harvard’s robotic-fly project and a professor at the university’s school of engineering and applied sciences.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding Wood’s research in the hope that it will lead to stealth surveillance robots for the battlefield and urban environments. The robot’s small size and fly-like appearance are critical to such missions. “You probably wouldn’t notice a fly in the room, but you certainly would notice a hawk,” Wood says.

Recreating a fly’s efficient movements in a robot roughly the size of the real insect was difficult, however, because existing manufacturing processes couldn’t be used to make the sturdy, lightweight parts required. The motors, bearings, and joints typically used for large-scale robots wouldn’t work for something the size of a fly. “Simply scaling down existing macro-scale techniques will not come close to the performance that we need,” Wood says.

Some extremely small parts can be made using the processes for creating microelectromechanical systems. But such processes require a lot of time and money. Wood and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, needed a cheap, rapid fabrication process so they could easily produce different iterations of their designs.

Ultimately, the team developed its own fabrication process. Using laser micromachining, researchers cut thin sheets of carbon fiber into two-dimensional patterns that are accurate to a couple of micrometers. Sheets of polymer are cut using the same process. By carefully arranging the sheets of carbon fiber and polymer, the researchers are able to create functional parts.

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