Flying RoboBees Could Aid in the Future of Search and Rescue

The insect-inspired microrobots are more resilient and easily controlled because of newly developed “soft muscles.”

New RoboBees now have the capability of controlled flight while also being resilient to crashes. 

Developed by researchers at Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory, the robotic bees are made with soft actuators, which act as the bees’ “muscles” to help it move. It’s reportedly the first microrobot to be powered by soft actuators to achieve flight, according to a November study published in Nature.  

Researchers at Harvard have been working on developing RoboBees, which are insect-inspired microrobots that have potential applications in search and rescue missions and agriculture. 

According to researchers, there has been a big push for soft actuators to make the microrobots more resilient. 

“However, many people in the field have been skeptical that [soft actuators] could be used for flying robots because the power density of those actuators simply hasn’t been high enough and they are notoriously difficult to control,” Yufeng Chen, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow at Harvard wrote in the research paper. 

Researchers fortified existing soft actuator tech with improved electrode conductivity and strengthened the robot with a lightweight airframe. They then made several models of soft actuator RoboBees. 

A RoboBee with eight wings and four actuators showed controlled hovering flight. Though other models weren’t able to fly as well, they were able to bump into each other and overcome collisions without sustaining damage. Researchers say they hope to improve the efficiency of soft-powered robots. 

“If we could engineer high performance artificial muscles, the sky is the limit for what robots we could build,” said Robert Wood, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard.