A new video captures a robotic bee in the process of showing off its skills: flying, diving, swimming, and — using a tiny system for combustion — surging out of the water and back into the air.
Developed by researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biology Inspired Engineering, the RoboBee overcomes a major engineering challenge: water surface tension. The RoboBee has a mass of just 175 milligrams, and at that scale surface tension “might as well be a brick wall,” Leah Burrows writes a Wyss Institute press release. So the tiny bot needs a boost to help it escape from the water's surface.
Researchers gave it four buoyant outriggers—what Burrows refers to as “robotic floaties”—and a gas collection chamber with an electrolytic plate that can convert water into a combustible fuel. At the surface, the floaties stabilize the robot while it pushes its wings free from the water, and then a spark combusts the freshly-made fuel, giving the robot the extra thrust needed to get back into flight.
The latest RoboBee is the result of more than a decade of work. The first RoboBee was produced in 2013, after twelve years of research by Robert Wood, the project’s principal investigator. “We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything,” Wood explained in a 2013 press release about the original RoboBee. “We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target.”
The Harvard RoboBee isn’t the only bee-inspired gadget out there. In Japan, engineers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology have created a drone, about 1.5 inches across, to assist in pollination of plants, Alice Klein wrote earlier this year for New Scientist. The drone is manually controlled and sports a small patch of faux animal fur on its underside, which can be used to collect and transfer pollen between blossoms. The team is still working to make fully autonomous drone pollinators a reality. “GPS, high-resolution cameras and artificial intelligence will be required for the drones to independently track their way between flowers and land on them correctly,” writes Klein.
The RoboBee’s creators note that while this version cannot yet be operated by remote control, it could pave the way for aerial-aquatic hybrid robots that could be used in search and rescue missions, environmental monitoring, or biological studies. While this latest version is more fun than functional, its new diving skills have made an engineering splash.