It would be so great to have robots that can fly during emergencies, but the hitch is that flying takes a great deal of energy. However, with the advent of Robobee, a device which has the ability to perch in order to save its energy could make a big difference.
How does it operate?
By flapping its two tiny wings, the small robot wobbles its way toward the underside of a leaf, bumps into the surface and latches on, perching motionless above the ground. A moment later, its wings begin to wag once more and it jiggles off on its way.
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Scientists believe that the little flying machine, called a “RoboBee”, which was designed to perch on a host of different surfaces, is opening up new possibilities for the use of drones in providing a bird’s-eye view of the world.
Such robotic micro aerial vehicles could be invaluable in the exploration of disaster zones or to form spontaneous communication networks. The hitch remains that flying takes energy, so the time these robots can spend in the air is limited by the size of the battery pack they can carry.
“Micro aerial vehicles run out of energy quickly. They can stay in the air for about 10 to 30 minutes,” says Moritz Alexander Graule, a PhD student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who developed the robot while at Harvard University.
Graule’s new flying robot weighs just a tenth of a gram and measures only two centimetres in height. It can attach and detach from the underside of jutting-out surfaces including wood, glass and plant leaves.
“This development,” says the researcher “provides a new direction to developing small-sized drones that can save energy while capturing a view of a scene below.” What could be more, he adds, “the development of new technologies, fabrication methods and components for use in these tiny devices are also benefiting other fields, such as the development of instruments for microsurgery.”
In his description in the journal Science, the authors shows how the robot attaches to its perch using electrostatic forces that are generated when a voltage is applied across a “landing patch” on the robot. Turn off the power, and the drone is free and ready to fly on.
The description revealed that there is an in-built foam tube which facilitates the landing, and prevents the robot from bouncing off its perch as it touches down. There is a motion tracking cameras which help control the robot, whose approach to landing was said to have been an inspiration from the honeybee.
The director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College London, Mirko Kovac, says the research shows how engineers can learn from nature, adding that the robot is a significant development in the field. “It shows that perching can be achieved in very small scale systems,” he said. “As you get smaller the energy required to fly becomes more challenging, it becomes more difficult to fly for long duration of time, so perching can really help.”
According Graule, the next step is to build the robot to the extent that it is no longer “tethered” to a nearby power-source. He then added “The plan is to get a drone that has onboard power in a laboratory environment.”