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November 25, 2015

Harvard RoboBee (Image 2)

A Harvard RoboBee, a microrobot smaller than a paperclip that flies and hovers like an insect.

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For the first time, researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) have demonstrated a flying, swimming, insect-like robot, paving the way for future dual aerial aquatic robotic vehicles.

Designed in the lab of Robert J. Wood, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, the Harvard RoboBee is a microrobot that flies and hovers like an insect, flapping its tiny, nearly invisible wings 120 times per second.

The engineers had to overcome a few problems to make RoboBee a success. For example, the transition from air to water was a problem for RoboBee because it is so small and lightweight that it cannot break the surface tension of water. To solve this, RoboBee hovers over the water at an angle, momentarily switches off its wings and crashes unceremoniously into the water in order to sink.

The next problem was accounting for water's increased density. "Water is almost 1,000 times denser than air and would snap the wing off the RoboBee if we didnt adjust its flapping speed," says graduate student Farrell Helbling.

To solve the problem, the team lowered the wing speed from 120 flaps per second to nine, but kept the flapping mechanisms and hinge design the same. A swimming RoboBee changes its direction by adjusting the stroke angle of the wings, the same way it does in air. Like a flying version, it is still tethered to a power source. The team prevented the RoboBee from shorting by using deionized water and coating the electrical connections with glue.

While this RoboBee can move seamlessly from air to water, it cannot yet transition from water to air because it cant generate enough lift without snapping one of its wings. Solving that design challenge is the next phase of the research.

This research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

To learn more, see the NSF News From the Field story Dive of the RoboBee. (Date image taken: 2015; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: Nov. 25, 2015) [Image 2 of 3 related images. See Image 3.]

Credit: Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS

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