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Bee-inspired robot uses static electricity to land anywhere

Robots come in all shapes and sizes these days from flexible pill-shaped robots you can swallow to humanoid robots that can walk like us. Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory has been working on a bee-inspired robot for a few years now, but researchers recently hit on an interesting modification. The micro-drone can already fly like a bee, but what if it could land like one too? This modification could make the device ideal for covert surveillance, search and rescue, or environmental monitoring.

The RoboBee was first unveiled by Harvard in 2013, and the basic design hasn’t changed much since. It’s a bit smaller than a quarter, but weighs just 0.8 grams — 31 times lighter than a penny. The tiny plastic wings flap at up to 120Hz, allowing for controlled flight. It can take off, cover small distances, and land using bottom-mounted tripod feet. The landing part is what engineers have been looking into. The tripod design meant the RoboBee could only land on flat surfaces, which is not the case with a real bee. They can stick to anything, and now its robotic counterpart can do that too.

Being able to perch on different structures is no small feat. That could be the difference between a micro-robot being useful and a mere laboratory curiosity. Being so tiny, there’s not a lot of room for a battery. Right now, the RoboBee is still externally powered via the thin wires you see extending from the base. Eventually, a small internal battery could let it fly untethered. It’s never going to have a lot of range, but being able to land on any surface lets it continue gathering data for extended periods from different locations before flying back. The alternative if there’s no flat landing spot would be to flutter around for a few minutes until its batteries run low and head back.

The Harvard team thinks it has this capability figured out with a new electrostatic pad on the top of the robot. It’s attached via a flexible mount so the robot doesn’t have to line up to bring the most surface area in contact with its target. The switchable electrostatic charge attracts the pad to the surface and the RoboBee is safely perched. This works with a wide range of materials like wood, glass, and leaves. It would work just fine on your walls or ceiling too. The power required to maintain the connection is several orders of magnitude lower than is required for flight, so the RoboBee can hang around for a very long time.

Developing an internally powered version of the RoboBee could take another five or ten years, unfortunately. When that does happen, tiny insectoid robots like this could fly around and land in order to spot check pollution levels or yes, spy on people.

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