As described in a paper published this week in the journal Science, the design of the robot – called RoboBee –is based loosely on the morphology of flies.
RoboBee is half the size of a paperclip and weighs less than a tenth of a gram. It propels itself on two wafer-thin wings that flap 120 times per second.
It took researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard more than a decade to figure out how to design and manufacture components small enough to fit on the robot’s body and make it fly.
The robot’s wings, for example, contain strips of ceramic that expand and contract when zapped by electricity.
The scientists have yet to figure out a way for the robot to carry its own energy supply, so RoboBee is currently attached to a thin power cable.
"We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything," Robert J. Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, Wyss Core Faculty Member and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported RoboBee project said. "We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target."
In the future, insect-sized robots could be used for environmental monitoring, search-and-rescue operations or to help pollinate crops.