Technology is increasingly turning towards robots to carry out tasks that human hands find difficult or dangerous to perform. For example, surgeons use snakebots, carrying tiny forceps, scissors and camera for precision surgery within the body. A long-standing goal has been to create flying robots with the capability to independently maneuver in air and land where needed. Equipped with tiny cameras, these nanomachines can be used for remote surveillance, disaster relief and providing medical help in isolated areas.
Many of the designs below have been inspired by nature, and mimick the movements of insects and birds. The robots need to be light enough to attain flight, limiting the material and electronics that can be used to construct them. Designers also need to think of way to control the wind independently, allowing the robot to maneuver and turn around in air. These nanoflys also need long-term but light rechargeable batteries. Here are 3 examples of how research groups have come up with their unique designs for flying robots:
Weighing just 3.07 grams and with a wingspan of 10 cm, the lastest version of the DelFly, the DelFly Micro, is smaller that its natural cousin, the dragonfly. Carrying a camera and transmitter, it can hover in the air, its direction controlled by the tail. The DelFly was developed by the Aerospace Software and Technologies Institute based in the Netherlands.
(Inset in video shows surveillance images from the on-board camera)
Read more about the design and construction of the DelFly here.
Developed for precision hover flight, and able to remain stationary in wind gusts of up to five miles an hour, the hummingbird-inspired robot has been developed by AeroVironment. An onboard auto-pilot controls and wings’ angle and shape, allowing it to hover stationary for up to 11 minutes. The nanobird weighs 11g with a wing span of 16 cm.
Developed by engineers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Robotic Fly has a wingspan of 3 cm and weights just 80 mg. To achieve fight at this weight the scientists used a carbob fibre body frame and piezoelectric materials, which convert an electrical signal to a mechanical impulse, to drive the wings. Due to its small size, no on-board fuel cells are available to power the flight of this miniature robot and it is currently powered by tethering it to an off-board power source.
Ma et al., 2013, Controlled Flight of a Biologically Inspired, Insect-Scale Robot, Science, 340, 603-607
Ward, 2011, Flight, Reimagined: The First Robotic Hummingbird, Popular Mechanics, Accessed June 2013
de Croon et al., 2009, Design, aerodynamics, and vision-based control of the DelFly, International Journal of Micro Air Vehicles, 1, 71-97