May 02, 2013, 2:01 PM — Researchers at Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have developed an insect-like robot that achieves flight by flapping a pair of tiny wings.
The robot is small enough to sit on the tip of a finger and weighs 80 milligrams -- that's roughly 1/30th the weight of a U.S. penny coin. Its wings, which have a span of 3 centimeters, can flap at up to 120 times per second.
The robot, which is described in a paper published in this week's edition of Science, was partially funded by the National Science Foundation and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.
Because it's so small, technology for the robot didn't previously exist.
"We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything," said Harvard Professor Robert J. Wood in a statement. "We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target."
For example, while large robots run on electromagnetic motors, they are impractical at this scale because of their size, weight and power consumption. So, to control the flap of the wings the team used piezoelectric actuators, which are ceramic devices that expand and contract with the application of electricity.
The robot represents more than a decade of work by several teams of researchers. It can be traced back to work done by Wood when he was a graduate student at the Berkeley Biomimetic Millisystems Lab. The California lab was working on similar technology.
"This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years," he said in a statement. "It's really only because of this lab's recent breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials, and design that we have even been able to try this. And it just worked, spectacularly well."
Next, the researchers hope to develop more aggressive control maneuvers and then to progress to untethered flight.
Currently, a fine cable carries power and control signals to the flying bug, but researchers are hoping to develop a tiny brain and power source that will enable it to fly without wires.
"Flies perform some of the most amazing aerobatics in nature using only tiny brains," Sawyer B. Fuller, a co-author of the paper, said in a statement. "Their capabilities exceed what we can do with our robot, so we would like to understand their biology better and apply it to our own work."
Harvard University's Office of Technology Department is already working on commercializing some of the technology used in creation of the robot.
Image credit: Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard University
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is email@example.com