Kevin Chen, assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, envisions a time when his insect-sized drone could be used as a search and rescue robot – finding survivors in disaster waste that larger drones couldn’t reach. Kevin Yufeng Chen hide caption
Kevin Yufeng Chen
Kevin Yufeng Chen
The reason a mosquito is so hard to kill is because it moves very well.
Scientists are trying to build a robot with this agility. And these tiny but powerful flying robots could be used in life and death situations, for example to find people in a collapsed building.
Kevin Chen says he spends “a lot of time studying flapping wing physics, which is how an insect can flap its wings and create lift and drag forces.”
Chen, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leads a team that invented a new microdrone – not quite as small as a mosquito.
“This robot’s weight and physical size are similar to a dragonfly,” he says.
The tiny drone weighs only 0.6 grams – about the same as a paper clip. But like a dragonfly, it is resilient.
It has a soft, muscular mechanism called an “actuator” that drives the wings for flight, which can flap nearly 500 times per second.
In the past, tiny robots used rigid actuators made from ceramic materials. “The robot will crash and land,” says Chen. “Or it can hit a ceiling or a wall. The rigid robots have a very difficult time dealing with these collisions.”
However, the new version uses actuators made from thin rubber cylinders coated with carbon nanotubes. When voltage is applied to the nanotubes, an MIT press release explains: “They create an electrostatic force that compresses and elongates the blanket cylinder. By repeatedly stretching and contracting the drone’s wings flap quickly.”
Chen says, “Since our soft power robot is of course very robust, we can of course perform interesting maneuvers, such as a somersault, and we can survive collisions, etc.”
He envisions a time when his drone could be used as a search and rescue robot – to find survivors in disaster rubble that larger drones couldn’t reach. For example in a building where people collapse.
“How do we do a search and rescue task to find out where the people are trapped under the building?” Says Chen.
Enter the insect-sized drone.
“Hopefully, they can see the person who was trapped inside and then send the information back together. So we have a good idea of where the person is trapped,” says Chen.
But the drones could have other uses. Chen sees them artificially pollinating plants or carrying small cameras to inspect turbine engines. Big jobs with tiny mechanics.
Jan Johnson and Elena Moore produced and edited the audio version of this story. Avie Schneider produced for the web.