The RoboBee sticks to a variety of surfaces. Harvard's RoboBee takes inspiration from nature for its battery conserving power. (via Harvard)


The Amazing Spider-Man has the ability to swing from his web and stick to any surface. What about if a robot could do that? It sounds a bit terrifying, but it's not so scary when put into such a tiny bot. Researchers at Harvard have created a new flying microrobot dubbed RoboBees, which have the ability to perch to save energy, similar to bats, birds, and butterflies. It's this ability that makes this flying bots different from others out there.


“A lot of different animals use perching to conserve energy,” said Kevin Ma, a postdoc at SEAS and the Wyss Institute and co-author. “But the methods they use to perch, like sticky adhesives or latching with talons, are inappropriate for a paper clip-size microrobot, as they either require intricate systems with moving parts or high forces for detachment.”


The robot is only 20 millimeters tall, has a wingspan of 36 millimeters, and has a weight of only 84 milligrams. But not only can the RoboBee perch to conserve energy, it also has the ability to climb walls, like spiders. They aren't covered in thousands of tiny hairs they use to climb walls. Instead they use static electricity to climb up surfaces, specifically electrostatic adhesion – the same science that causes a static-charged sock to cling to a pant leg. But you don't rub the robot and try to stick it to a wall. The bot uses an electrode patch and a foam mount to absorb shock. When this patch is given a charge it can stick to almost any surface like glass, wood, or a leaf. Once the power supply is shut off, the mechanism detaches.


According to Harvard, the robot uses 1,000 times less power when it's attached to something than when it's hovering. It's an innovative way to extend its battery life. “The use of adhesives that are controllable without complex physical mechanisms, are low power, and can adhere to a large array of surfaces is perfect for robots that are agile yet have limited payload — like the RoboBee,” said Robert Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS and the Wyss Institute.


The perching ability meets the extending battery life goal of the researchers, but the RoboBee still has its limitations. Right now the bot can only attach to ceilings or the underside of structures like tables, leaves, and open windows. It can't stick very well to rough or uneven surfaces. The researcher team plans to keep developing the RoboBee so it can vertically perch on walls of any texture. The robot is also too small to fly around untethered, since a mobile battery would weigh the robot down too much.


The robot sounds promising, but you have to imagine what the RoboBee would be used for. With the addition of the camera mount it could explore hard to reach places. Though Harvard researchers have gotten pretty far with the RoboBee, they clearly have a lot more work to do. But at least the future looks pretty bright for the tiny robot.



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