RoboBee: Engineers teach insect drones how to perch on ceiling (VIDEO)

© Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Engineers developing an insect-sized drone have devised a way to make it perch bat-like on horizontal surfaces with the force of electrostatic. This allows the bot to conserve precious energy.

Tiny flying robots such as the RoboBee, which is being developed by researchers at Harvard University, have a range of potential applications, from spying on people indoors to searching inside ruined buildings at disaster sites to establishing wireless networks on demand.

One of the biggest drawbacks, however, is the lack of technology to provide enough energy for such a small-scale device to give it practical endurance. One way to deal with it is by finding ways to conserve energy.

Landing or perching saves a lot of energy for a flyer, but the techniques most animals use for perching are difficult to replicate. Some micro-drone developers have equipped their bots with spines to stick to some surfaces, or magnets to attach to metals.

The approach of the Harward team is somewhat different. They developed a patch that generates static electricity and makes it stick to other things. It uses about a thousandth of the energy required to hover for the same length of time.

The patch uses foam to absorb the shock during the attachment and detaches simply by cutting off the power.

"The low disengagement forces are really important because they enable future prototypes of the robot to land somewhere and not only stay there and use the high vantage point for observation, but also to reposition itself and return to an operator with collected data," said Moritz Alexander Graule, co-author of a study describing the research, which was published in Science magazine.

So far the RoboBee can only stick to things from underneath, but researchers are working on a way to allow it touch down on any surface. A greater challenge is to give the drone enough onboard power for greater mobility. At the moment RoboBee is powered by a remote source through a tether – the same drawback that, for instance, modern exoskeletons have.