Meet Harvard's RoboBee microrobot, the lightest machine to ever take flight

Joanna Estrada
June 28, 2019

The thrust efficiency of the RoboBee is the same as that of small insects, Noah Jafferis, postdoctoral engineer at Harvard University and a lead researcher said.

This tiny, solar-powered, bee-like robot could be the future of drones.

The Harvard Microrobotics Lab has announced the latest version of its insect-like RoboBee "X-Wing" is officially the lightest vehicle to achieve sustained untethered flight.

"This is a result several decades in the making", said Robert Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute and principle investigator of the Robobee project.

Why wings? Flapping wings have several potential advantages over the propeller blades that give lift to conventional drones.

Because the improvements provided more lift without a similar increase in power requirements, the researchers working on the project were able to eliminate the power cord that has historically (for the last six years) kept the tiny robot tethered to a power source. Solar cells are equipped at its top, and at the bottom are all of the drive electronics you need to boost the trickle of voltage coming out of the solar panels up to the 200 volts. However, the robot requires light intensity equal to three Earth suns at this time, meaning outdoor flight isn't yet possible - the lab used halogen bulbs as a substitute. The solar cells sit about three centimeters above the wings, to avoid interference. "Real science isn't like that", said Helbling. "In the end, it's pretty thrilling". The little flyer needs around 120 mW of power to stay in the air, and the job of this hanging panel is to convert low-voltage from the solar array into enough power to control the actuators. "Now that power solutions are emerging, the next step is onboard control". Once these changes are made, the RoboBee could be significant in developing technology for areas such as surgery, assistance robots, and haptic communication devices, which helps users communicate with computers via touch. However, it had no way of generating power, so untethered flight was out of the question. Nature, 570 (7762), 491. Note: material may have been edited for length and content.

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