Harvard’s tiny, insect-inspired RoboBee X-Wing can fly using solar power

Size can matter when it comes to innovative flying machines — but bigger doesn’t necessarily equal better. Few robots illustrate that point better than Harvard University’s new RoboBee X-Wing: A winged drone that stands just 6.5 centimeters high and weighs only 259 milligrams. Boasting an insect-inspired design, RoboBee X-Wing takes to the sky by flapping its wings a dazzling 170 times per second. Oh, yes, and unlike other minuscule flying robots we’ve covered, it doesn’t have to be tethered to a power source to fly.

“This has been one of the major milestones in the development of insect-scale flying robots,” Noah Jafferis, a research associate in Materials Science and Mechanical Engineering in Harvard’s Wyss Institute, told Digital Trends. “Without onboard power, such vehicles have been confined to operate only in the lab. There is still much to be done to enable autonomous flight, however. Our next steps include integrating onboard sensing and control, and further improving vehicle performance to allow for operation in natural sunlight and include onboard batteries.”

At present, the solar-powered robot hasn’t taken to the skies in natural light because it requires around three times the intensity of sunlight to be able to fly. Nonetheless, as Jafferis notes, this is a crucial landmark in the field of diminutive flying robots.

Noah T. Jafferis and E. Farrell Helbling, Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory

RoboBee X-Wing is the sequel, of sorts, to a previous influential robot developed at Harvard called RoboBee. The main changes in the new vehicle design include the use of four wings instead of two, which increases efficiency by up to 30%, and improved actuator and transmission design, increasing lift by up to 38%. This provides enough payload to integrate and drive the electronics and solar cells needed to let the vehicle fly untethered.

“Applications of this robot are still a bit far off, but swarms of them could one day be used as distributed sensor networks for environmental monitoring and mapping confined spaces such as in disaster zones or archaeological sites,” Jafferis continued. “We also anticipate that the technologies developed to create this robot will be very useful for any other small scale devices that have extreme mass and power constraints, such as medical or space devices.”

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Nature.

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