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Insect-Inspired Sensors Improve Tiny Robot’s Flight

By The Scientist

June 26, 2014

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A team from the Microrobotics Lab at Harvard University has developed RoboBee, a tiny flying robot with a self-stabilizing feature, called ocelli, inspired by the light-sensing organs of insects.

The robot weighs about 100 milligrams and can hover and fly on a preset route using two lightweight wings. However, at this size, power sources and navigation sensors must remain off-board and connected to the robot via thin wires.

The light sensor is similar to a single pixel of a digital camera, registering changes in light and converting those to voltage. The robot then uses this information to identify the horizon, estimate its pitch and roll, and adjust the rate at which it flaps its wings in a feedback loop to stay upright.

During testing, the RoboBee was able to stabilize itself for short durations for about half a second, or 50 wing beats. The Harvard team, led by Robert Wood, is working to improve the robot to allow longer flights, and to shrink the power sources and processors so they can be placed onboard the tiny robot, according to Sawyer Fuller, a postdoctoral researcher in Wood's lab.

"Recently, the emphasis has changed from how do you fabricate the vehicle to, now, how do you put sensing onboard," Fuller says.

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