The new solar-powered RoboBee uses four wings to propel itself without a tether. The newly updated RoboBee X-Wing. (Image credit: Harvard University)
A few years ago, Harvard University introduced RoboBee, a flying robot that took inspiration from birds and bats to conserve energy. Now, researchers have introduced their latest version dubbed RoboBee X-Wing. Not only does it have four wings instead of two, it can now fly on its own without the need for a power tether. Instead, it uses the power it collects from light hitting its solar cell, letting it stay in the air indefinitely.
Researchers have been tweaking the RoboBee for a few years finding new ways to make it lighter and smaller. The updated bot is only one-quarter the weight of a paper clip, but still requires the extra boost provided by the additional two wings to carry its on-board electronics and six solar cells. The solar cells generate 5 volts of electricity, and a small onboard transformer turns it into the 200 volts of electricity – what the RoboBee needs for lift off. The voltage makes the bee’s piezoelectric actuators to bend and contract similar to a real insect’s muscles, leading to the flapping motion of the robot's wings.
Though it no longer needs the tether for flight, it still can’t be deployed in real missions. In order to generate the power it needs, it requires light three times the intensity of our sun. Also, it only works when it’s directly under the light and can only fly for a few seconds during testing. And to be able to fly in the dark, the bot needs to be equipped with a power storage solution, which would make it heavier.
The team shared a video of the RoboBee taking flight where it shoots up like a bottle rocket. You can also see how the bot’s body doesn’t have enough space for the flight control electronics and power storage that could provide it the energy it needs.
For the next step, the team will work on a version that’s 25 percent larger and can get power from a light source that’s “only” 1.5 more intense than the sun. And the team admits the RoboBee looks “a bit awkward” and isn’t ready to be commercialized just yet. Once the team perfects the RoboBee, it could prove to be effective for search and rescue missions and environmental exploration. For now, we’ll just have to wait for another update, which could take a few years if the previous iteration is anything to go by.
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