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Flight of the RoboBee: Harvard scientists develop tiniest flying robots

Five robotic flies shown with a U.S. penny for scale.

Kevin Ma, Pakpong Chirarattananon

Scientists at Harvard University have developed tiny winged robots that mimic insects in nature. They are as agile as real flies.

The tiny creatures are made out of carbon fibre and about half the size of a paper clip, weighing less than one-tenth of a gram. They were developed by a team of researchers at Harvard, whose results were reported this week in the journal Science.

"I was so excited I couldn't sleep," graduate student and co-lead author of the paper Pakpong Chirarattananon said of the insect's first flight . Mr. Chirarattananon captured the first flight on video and e-mailed it to his supervisor with the subject line, "Flight of the RoboBee."

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Researchers hope the robot insect could one day be used for tricky search-and-rescue operations by flying through tiny spaces, or be used to pollinate crops.

The robot has wings that beat 120 times every second, just like those of a real fly. To develop these wings the researchers used piezoelectric materials, which can convert a mechanical charge to movement. By switching the voltage on and off, the scientists were able to simulate real muscles and make the tiny robot's wings contract.

For now, the robotic insects are connected by tether to a small stationary power source, but the scientists say the next step is to make them fully wireless.

"Flies perform some of the most amazing aerobatics in nature using only their tiny brains," said coauthor Sawyer B. Fuller. "The capabilities exceed what we can do with our robot, so we would like to understand their biology better and apply it to our own work."

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