The RoboBee is 1,000 times lighter than any other aerial-aquatic robot, and this difference in scale is what's kept decades worth of Harvard engineering students busy with the design. In the official announcement of the new research, Wood — now a professor of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard — said that the robot's extremely tiny size makes it a unique engineering challenge.
“The RoboBee represents a platform where forces are different than what we — at human scale — are used to experiencing," he said.
The RoboBee engineering team, with support from the National Science Foundation, is working on the millimeter scale, confronting the problem of surface tension, which transforms the surface of any body of water into something akin to a brick wall. For the bot to dive, its impact must be forceful enough to break that surface tension. But surface tension works both ways. To get back out again, the RoboBee must generate enough force to pop through from below.
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Engineers outfitted the RoboBee with four bouyent outriggers — robotic floaties, essentially. To achieve liftoff from the surface into the air, the RoboBee uses a small electrolytic plate that converts water into oxyhydrogen, a combustible fuel. A tiny spark mechanism inside the bot ignites the gas, powering the RoboBee upward like a minuscule rocket ship. Once in the air, the bot stabilizes itself, and lands. In order for the bot to return to flight mode, it first has to dry off.
The RoboBee remains a kind of a perpetual research platform without any practical applications. But researchers might one day deploy aerial-aquatic robots to remote areas in order to gather biological samples on land, in the air, or under water. And, equipped with onboard sensors, the bots might map areas that larger devices or humans can't fit into — a task that could easily benefit search-and-rescue efforts.
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