World's Smallest Flying Robot Finally Takes Off

The worlds smallest flying robot has finally taken off, 12 years after a group of Harvard scientists first started working on it. The robo-fly, barely larger than a penny, bats its wings 120 times per second, just like a real insect.

In fact, the robot only lifted off when the researchers stopped using robot technology and instead concentrated on how insects fly, says Wyss Institute team leader Dr. Robert Wood. Using piezoelectric material, which contracts every time power is applied, the team simulated the effects of an insect's beating wings by rapidly switching the voltage on and off.

"We get it to contract and relax, like biological muscle," said Dr. Kevin Ma, one of the scientists. And it is precisely this thinking which allows the robo-fly to hover, soar up and down, and even evade being swatted.

The Harvard team behind the robo-fly suggests it could be used for search-and-rescue operations and environmental monitoring. Ma even thinks it could be used to pollinate plants—a sort of robo-bee, if you will. (This wouldn't be the first attempt: Harvard's micro-drones came about via an attempt to build a robotic bee colony.)

There is, however, a fly in the ointment: Power is still provided via a tether, and the mini-UAV doesn't cope very well with rain or wind.

The new robo-fly joins the list of other tiny robotic offerings, including MIT's robotic version of raw binary data.

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