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"'Bot Flies" -- The Discovery Files

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Stanford researchers have modified small flying robots to anchor onto surfaces and pull heavy loads, moving objects 40 times their weight with the help of powerful winches and two previous inventions -- gecko adhesives and microspines. The small size of these machines, called FlyCroTugs, means they can navigate through snug spaces and fairly close to people, making them useful for search and rescue.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

'Bot flies.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: voices in street) "It's a 'bot! It's a drone! It's FlyCroTug?"

Inspired by nature, engineers at Stanford University and in Switzerland have developed a new kind of flying machine called a FlyCroTug: Fly: because it does. Cro: for "micro" -- it's very small. And Tug: with its advanced gripping technologies, it can anchor to a surface and move objects 40 times its own weight.

Living creatures provided early inspiration: First, (Sound effect: group of wasps) the wasp -- which flies with its prey or if it's too heavy, drags it along the ground.

Now on to the gecko. The robots have a gecko-inspired adhesive that lets them anchor to smooth surfaces. And microspines like on insect legs, to latch on to bumps and small pits on rough surfaces.

To that the engineers add a power winch and a cable, even optional wheels -- all on a micro air vehicle twice the weight of a golf ball.

The team demonstrated the FlyCroTugs opening a door (Sound effect: door opens) and flying atop a crumbling structure and hauling up a camera to see inside.

(Sound effect: emergency scene) They envision the device flying around a disaster site and looking around, then anchoring itself and pulling to move debris.

Wonder if I could get one to fly over to my fridge and bring me a snack?

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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