Insect-sized robot takes flight: RoboBee X-Wing

Insects are true masters of flight – small,
lightweight and highly manoeuvrable. Scientists have been taking inspiration
from our six-legged friends to try and create flying
robots of the same size. But it’s proven difficult because when
you get down to the insects’ scale, it’s hard to generate enough thrust
to carry your own power source. But there’s a new robot in town
that’s creating a bit of a buzz. This is RoboBee X-Wing. It’s got a wingspan of just 3.5 centimetres and it’s
about a quarter of the weight of a paperclip. At this scale, batteries are just
too heavy to be carried onboard, so the researchers used
ultra-lightweight solar cells. These generate power and send it to a control board
that operates a pair of piezoelectric actuators – clever materials that work a bit like a muscle and contract when a voltage passes across them. By sticking two actuators together, they bend
back and forth to flap the bot’s wings. These seminal flights
lasted for less than a second and required more than twice
the energy contained in sunlight. But they represent an important
milestone for flight at this scale, and even supersede the
thrust efficiency of living insects. There’s certainly still room for improvement. The aerodynamics of the wings
are not as efficient as a real insect’s, and, of course, the controls that insects
pack into their tiny compact brains are a long way off for RoboBee X-Wing. But this model produced more
thrust than it needed and in the future, that could be used to carry controls, sensors,
maybe even some sort of battery. The hope is that these miniature robotic insects will
one day be able to achieve continuous outdoor flight and help with environmental and disaster monitoring, perhaps even operating in a swarm.

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