Space & Innovation

Robot Insect Parks Under Leaves to Save Energy

A flying micro-drone uses static electricity to cling on services and conserve energy.

One of the stars of the recent Helen Mirren film "Eye in the Sky" is a bee-sized drone that spies on terrorists while perched in the rafters of an East African home.

Now a group of engineers has designed a real-life bee-bot that can attach itself to the underside of a leaf, shelf or branch.

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The interesting thing about this "micro-drone" is that it uses electrical attraction forces to attach itself rather than a hook or adhesive. It's lightweight, only one-hundredth of a gram, with a wingspan of just over an inch.

Sitting quietly on a bush or tall tree means that the device doesn't have to use lots of energy flying around during a surveillance mission, according to Moritz Graule, a graduate mechanical engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lead author of the new paper published in the journal Science.

"Perching on an elevated structure allows us to stay at a high vantage point and get a bird's-eye view without having to activate our power system," Graule said.

Graule explained that the device uses electrostatic adhesion to stick on its perch.

"When you wrap a balloon on a wool sweater, the balloon becomes negatively charged," he said. "The negative charge forces away some of the positive charges and then you have attraction, and the balloon sticks to the wall."

In order to stay attached, the bee-bot needs to generate a small amount of energy to keep the negative charge. The video below shows how the bee-bot works.

Still this small charge requires 500 to 1,000 times less energy than the amount of power needed to make the bot fly. Graule hopes this power savings will translate into longer flight times.

Tiny Robo-Fly Uses Micro Energy To Buzz

"If you if take 500 times less power, we can stay in the air 500 times longer with same battery capacity," Graule said. "We can definitely go from minutes to hours."

Robot Insect Parks on Leaves to Save Energy: Page 2

Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and an expert in bio-inspired devices, said that several trends are combining to make small autonomous fliers increasingly practical -- from large drones, to small quadrotors, and finally to flying microrobots.

Microprocessors and sensors are shrinking steadily and consuming less power even as they become more capable. Actuators that move parts on flying devices are also getting smaller -- although there are some basic energy principles that make it harder for them to shrink in the same way as computers and sensors.

10 Animal-like Robots That Slither, Hop, Run and Fly

New fabrication processes have made it increasingly possible to produce small, complex and precise mechanisms like those needed for the nano-bee flier, Cutkosky said.

"The various pieces of the technology that the authors describe and analyze in detail have all existed and been demonstrated," Cutkosky told DNews in an e-mail. "However, the authors bring them together in a new and particularly compelling application and demonstration."

Mike Tolley, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California San Diego, likes the idea of electrostatic adhesion for small flying vehicles.

Tiny Robo-Fly Uses Micro Energy To Buzz

"It does require high voltages, however, so do the piezoelectric actuators they are using to drive the flapping of the MAV's wings," said Tolley, who is also a former graduate student of the paper's co-author.

"Based on the experiments that the authors have described, it seems clear to me that this approach is practical and will work on a wide variety of surfaces.," Tolley said.

Robert Wood, professor at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and a co-author on the paper said the micro-flier can be used for search and rescue missions, surveillance and exploring hazardous environments, perhaps using a swarm to cover a given area.

"Basically any situation where you want to have low cost and distributed sensing but would be too difficult or too dangerous for a human," Wood said.

An electrode patch creates a static charge that allows the micro-drone, weighing just one-hundredth of a gram, to attach to surfaces.

Animals got it going on. They fly better than humans, swim better, run faster, and hop higher. So it's no surprise that scientists are building robots modeled after creatures from the animal kingdom. Here are 10 of our favorites. Meet Spot, a four-legged robotic dog that can run over terrain, climb stairs and can handle a kick to the ribs without a flinch. Google-owned Boston Dynamics’ robot uses an electrical/hydraulic system and is designed for both indoor and outdoor operation.

BionicKangaroo is a robot developed by automation company Festo to technologically reproduce the unique way that a kangaroo moves. Just like a kangaroo, the robot recovers energy when jumping, stores it and efficiently uses it for the next jump.

A turtle-shaped robot named Beachbot, created by Disney Research labs, uses a retractable rake and onboard sensors to etch elaborate lines and designs in the sand.

The Great Elephant robot, which makes the French city of Nantes its home, is made from 45 tons of reclaimed wood and steel. The mechanical elephant can carry up to 49 passengers at a time on a 45-minute walk.

The Atrias robot is modeled after birds, which are arguably the fastest and most agile two-legged runners in the world. The robot, developed by researchers at the Oregon State University’s Dynamic Robotics Laboratory, has impeccable balance and can withstand kicks, punches and even a barrage of dodge balls.

The ACM-R5H robot, developed by Japan-based HiBot, is intended for inspection and search operations in underwater environments. In the front unit, a wireless camera is mounted to capture images.

German robotics company Festo is known for its animal-inspired robots. One of their latest creations is BionicAnt, a colony of small robots that work together to accomplish tasks, similar to how real insect societies work together toward a common goal.

The Navy recently deployed a robotic shark called the GhostSwimmer unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), which is five feet long and 100 pounds. It is based on biomimetic design principles and can be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, as well as hull inspections of friendly ships.

Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah robot is capable of running faster than any human, with speeds reaching 28.3 mph. It also has an articulated back that flexes back and forth on each step, mimicking the movement of a cheetah.

The T8, by Robugtix, is made with high-resolution 3D-printed parts, and is modeled after the movements of a spider. It has 26 different motors, with three in each leg and two in the abdomen.