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Insect-sized RoboBee can fly and swim


Tiny insect robot proves that size isn’t everything.

Flying robots are cool. Swimming robots are cool. And tiny, insect-sized robots? Way cool. Put them all together, and you’ve got RoboBee, the world’s first insect-sized robot capable of both flying and swimming.

RoboBee has been able to fly for a while. Hence its name. Engineers from Harvard University wanted to make it swim too. But there was a problem. Flying objects require large airfoils to generate lift, while those that travel underwater need to minimise surface area to reduce drag. To solve it, they took inspiration from an unlikely source: puffins.

These birds flap their wings in a similar way both to fly and to propel themselves through water. Engineers from Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) thought this might hold the key.

“Through various theoretical, computational and experimental studies, we found that the mechanics of flapping propulsion are actually very similar in air and water,” explained Kevin Chen, a graduate student in the Harvard Microbiotics Lab at SEAS. “In both cases, the wing is moving back and forth. The only difference is the speed at which the wing flaps.”

Because water is much denser than air, the team had to slow down the speed of RoboBee’s wings flapping, otherwise they would break. The hinge design and mechanism remain the same, but when swimming, RoboBee’s wings flap at just 9 flaps per second, down from 120 when flying. To change direction, it adjusts the stroke angle of its wings, just as it does while flying.

While it can drop into water with no problem (as long as it switches off its wings first so they don’t break) it can’t generate enough lift to fly out of the drink. That’s the next challenge.

The research was presented in a paper at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Germany, where it was awarded best student paper. It’s hoped that one day, it could prove the basis of a flying submarine. Way to go, little feller!

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