Robert Wood, an associate professor in Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is founder of the Harvard Microrobotics Lab that leverages expertise in microfabrication for the development of biologically inspired robots with feature sizes on the micrometer to centimeter scale. Find out more in this video news release.
Credit: Pratheev Sreetharan, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Harvard University scientists and engineers seek to artificially mimic the collective behavior and "intelligence" of a bee colony with the goal of gaining a greater understanding of fields such as entomology, developmental biology, amorphous computing and electrical engineering. Hear more in this Discovery Files podcast.
Credit: NSF/Karson Productions
Busy as a bee. A hive of activity. Bees and bee colonies have long been held up as models of efficiency and coordination. Using a host of different sensors, unique communication protocols, and a precise hierarchy of task delegation, thousands of bees can work independently on different tasks while all working toward a common goal--keeping their colony alive. With a NSF Expeditions in Computing award, researchers are creating robotic bees that fly autonomously and coordinate activities among themselves and the hive, much like real bees. Find out more in this news release.
Credit: Harvard University
NSF took the lead with three other federal government agencies to support the administration's National Robotics Initiative. The initiative supports the development and use of robots that work beside, or cooperatively, with people and that enhance individual human capabilities, performance and safety. Find out more in this news release.
Credit: Carnegie Mellon University
Robots are emerging from industrial settings to help humans perform surgery, catch criminals and even fend off the effects of aging. Learn more in this Special Report.
Credit: Distributed Robotics Lab, MIT
The Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS) of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate studies the inter-related roles of people, computers and information. IIS supports research and education activities that develop new knowledge about the role of people in the design and use of information technology; increase our capability to create, manage, and understand data and information in circumstances ranging from personal computers to globally distributed systems; and advance our understanding of how computational systems can exhibit the hallmarks of intelligence.
To improve the next generation of insect-size flying machines, Johns Hopkins engineers have been aiming high-speed video cameras at some of the prettiest bugs on the planet. By figuring out how butterflies flutter among flowers with amazing grace and agility, the researchers hope to help small airborne robots mimic these maneuvers.
These tiny, flying 'bots' could one day help with search and rescue, weather mapping
It started with a TV show, "Silence of the Bees," about honeybee populations in steep decline. At Harvard University, electrical engineers Rob Wood and Gu-Yeon Wei, and computer scientist Radhika Nagpal saw a challenge. And, so began the creation of the "RoboBee," a miniature flying robot, inspired by the biology of a bee and the insect's hive behavior.
"Nothing is off the shelf. We are developing all the physical and electronic components from scratch, and working out issues, such as how they communicate with each other," explains Wood. "We are also coordinating all the algorithms, so that the members of the RoboBee colony can work together."
"This set up is where we do all the flight tests," says Wood, as he shows a Science Nation producer around his lab. In one corner, researchers at a white board are drawing small bee designs and discussing proportions. In another area, a prototype RoboBee, tethered to a power source, is about to takeoff.
With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and one of the agency's programs called Expeditions in Computing, Wood put together a diverse team of collaborators to get the RoboBee project off the ground.
"A key here was to get everyone, all with great ideas about different aspects of the problem, lined up to work together. That made it possible for this team to attack an enormous challenge," says Ken Whang, program director for the division of information and intelligent systems within the NSF's Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering.
"3-2-1. Go!" The tethered RoboBee prototype lifts off the ground, if only for a second, veers right, and lands. High-speed cameras track the short flight. "Expeditions in Computing is looking for new architectures for computing--new ways of thinking about different important problems in computer science," says Wood, as he nods at the successful test flight.
One challenge is to design a small exoskeleton to house the bee's wings, motors, brain and electronics. Wood's team developed a folding assembly. "The idea is inspired, in a lot of ways, by a children's pop-up book. We can take a variety of different materials and layer them up," explains Wood.
Wei heads up a team developing the RoboBee's intricate, multitasking, computer chip brain. "We have different regions on the chip responsible for different things. We also have an electronic nervous system within the RoboBee brain that tells the bee to flap its wings," says Wei.
Power is another issue. If the fuel source is too heavy, the bee can't fly. "We have a collaborator that's making micro fuel cells that should be much better than the batteries," says Wood.
"There's so much that goes into recreating what real bees just do naturally," adds Wei.
"Even after all that, a single bee or RoboBee is tiny, compared to the world in which it needs to operate," notes Nagpal. She develops algorithms for distributed and multi-robot systems.
"Honeybees live in colonies of thousands, and, through amazing cooperation, achieve efficiency far beyond the sum of individuals. Bees do a number of things to increase efficiency, from sharing information within the hive to continually adapting their division of labor. All of this allows them to solve the very complex task of survival in an ever changing environment. What we need to learn is how to utilize those same principles, such as collective search and collective decision-making, but turn them into algorithms that can be used to solve new problems posed by human needs," explains Nagpal.
Ultimately, Wood, Wei and Nagpal hope to build a colony in which the RoboBees interact, using their hive as a refueling station. The researchers say RoboBees have the potential to be useful in a number of ways, including search and rescue missions, traffic monitoring, and weather mapping.
The research in this episode was funded by NSF through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.