CAMBRIDGE – Engineers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) have created a robotic bee, or RoboBee, that can fly and swim as well.

The RoboBee has been flying around for some time. However, engineers have strived to modify the paper clip-sized robot in order to make it swim without any damages. In order to create this aerial and aquatic robot, the researchers studied animals that can also fly and swim, such as the puffin. Therefore, they came to the conclusion that in order to make the microbot fly, they needed only to adapt the amount of times the wings flapped in and out of water.

A RoboBee sits on a quarter, throwing its size and lightness into perspective. Credits: Ben Finio/Fast Company

“What is really exciting about this research is that our analysis of flapping-wing locomotion is not limited to insect-scaled vehicles. From millimetre-scaled insects to metre-scaled fishes and birds, flapping locomotion spans a range of sizes. This strategy has the potential to be adapted to larger aerial-aquatic robotic designs,” said Kevin Chen, who led the research, at the Harvard Microrobotics Lab at SEAS.

It has delicate, wafer-thin wings, the RoboBee flies at 120 wing-flaps per second and diminishes to 9 per second when it reaches contact with water. The only problem, however, is its ungraceful plunge. The engineers realized the robot would have to sink faintly but with enough force to rise above the challenge of being a super lightweight gadget.

The microbot was created from layers of laser-cut carbon fiber. These layers are attached with embedded plastic. Its wings are powered by piezoelectric actuators, yet the source is external and is connected to the mechanism through a wire tether. The team of engineers used deionized water to avoid an electrical short when the bee swum.

Sources: Harvard News