Insect-like drones can take a beating and maintain flying


Insect-like drones have come a big step closer to practical reality. Researchers from Harvard, MIT, and the City University of Hong Kong have developed tiny, insect-inspired drones that not only maneuver in tight spaces, but can also withstand bumps if something goes wrong. The key is to switch to an actuation system that can flap the wings of the drones while it survives its share of abuse.

Until now, drone manufacturers who wanted to get this small had to ditch motors (which lose effectiveness when they are small) in favor of rigid piezoelectric ceramic-based actuators. The new drones are based on soft actuators made from rubber cylinders coated with carbon nanotubes. When you put tension on these nanotubes, they squeeze and stretch the rubber to flap the drones’ wings nearly 500 times per second.

As you can imagine, the combination is very effective. While “inches” in size, the drones can squeeze through small areas, perform tight maneuvers (including flips), and survive some collisions unscathed. They also weigh as little as a bumblebee at around 0.02 ounces.

There are currently many restrictions. The insect-style drones are still tied to power sources, and there’s so much intelligence to pack into such a tiny robot. They are far from practical use.

However, if scientists can solve these problems, the effects could be significant. MIT Assistant Professor Kevin Yufeng Chen envisions tiny drones that machines can inspect, or even bee-like bots that artificially pollinate plants. In fact, these extra small devices could conquer a final frontier for drones, reaching environments where traditional drones simply cannot be used.