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RoboBee
(Via Harvard Microrobotics Lab / Harvard University)

Here’s some drone news worth buzzing about. Researchers have developed insect-sized flying robots that have the ability to perch on objects using static electricity in order to conserve energy and extend flight times.

In a report in the University of Washington’s UW Today, the work of a team of Harvard roboticists and a UW mechanical engineer is detailed. The tiny drones, nicknamed RoboBees, employ a switchable electroadhesive that allows them to land on materials such as glass, wood or a leaf.

“Think of perching as landing without a runway. Birds, bats and insects do it,” says a video showcasing the drones in Science Magazine.

The electroadhesion patch attached to the RoboBees works similarly to the way your hair sticks to a balloon. But this means the drones must be very light in order to stick to a surface. So the engineers’ drones weigh in at around 100 mg, which is equal to the weight of a real honeybee.

The patch requires about 1,000 times less power to perch than it does to hover, and this can dramatically extend the operation life of the robot for missions ranging from providing views of disaster areas, detecting hazardous chemicals or providing communication in remote regions.

“One of the biggest difficulties with building insect-sized robots is that the physics change as you go that small. A lot of technologies that have been deployed successfully on larger robots become impractical on a centimeter-sized robot,” co-author Sawyer Fuller, UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said in UW Today. “We take inspiration from flying insects because they’ve already found solutions for these challenges.”

Read more about the breakthrough at UW Today or in the paper published in Science.

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