What can tiny robot bees do for us?

A new microrobot called the RoboBee uses static cling to perch on objects where no tiny robot has perched before, greatly expanding its operational life. 

Robots today can do almost anything, it seems, but the latest development in microbot technology may be surprising: the ability to take a break. 

Scientists at Harvard and MIT have developed robot technology that uses static electricity to allow tiny bee-like drones, or micro aerial vehicles, to perch on objects, according to a new article published in Science.

The tiny RoboBee, pioneered at the Harvard Microrobotics Lab, can perch on a variety of surfaces using electrostatic adhesion. Just as newly tumble-dried clothes cling to each other, the RoboBee uses the science of positive and negative electric charges to cling to surfaces such as ledges and trees. Once it is perched, the RoboBee clicks off its propeller wings, saving its energy and increasing the length of its mission.

Although seemingly insignificant, longer battery lives could have serious implications for other scientific and robotic fields. Researchers say that the RoboBee's perching technology could advance the field of microrobotics and its range of applications when exploring the depths of land and sea deemed unsafe for humans to travel.

"A lot of different animals use perching to conserve energy," said Harvard researcher and paper co-author Kevin Ma, PhD, in a press release. "But the methods they use to perch, like sticky adhesives or latching with talons, are inappropriate for a paperclip-size microrobot, as they either require intricate systems with moving parts or high forces for detachment."

Unlike perchers found in nature, the RoboBee's abilities are supplied by an electrode patch that, when charged, allows the robot to rest on surfaces like glass and organic material, such as plants.

Perching could significantly increase the lifespan of these tiny microrobot batteries, using about 1,000 times less energy than they would expend while hovering.

At just 100 mg, the tiny RoboBee is lifesize to an actual insect. Its small frame gives researchers more room to work with as they attempt to develop the technology further.

"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," study author Robert Wood of the Wyss Institute at Harvard said in a press release.

Around the world, robotics researchers and public safety officials, border control agents, and environmental scientists are already well familiar with the benefits of tiny robotic technology.

Recent advances in robotics technology have developed tiny robots that can work together in packs, similar to the collaborative work of larger assembly line robots.

Border control agents are already using small robots to explore dark tunnels that they suspect are used for trafficking drugs, but are dangerous for human agents to investigate.

In 2009, scientists at the University of California, San Diego, developed swimming robots in order to better monitor the world's oceans. These tiny robots can not only swim, but can also measure currents to help environmental scientists better understand the way the ocean moves pollution and even fish larvae.

Like these other robotics developments, perching robots may help scientists explore previously inaccessible environments or gather unique information. But first, scientists at the Wyss Institute say, they hope to develop an on-board power source for the tiny drones, which would allow the RoboBee to stay airborne for even longer. These developments could be up to 10 years away

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