RoboBee is the world's first -- and at just 80 milligrams, the smallest -- controllable, flying, insect-scale robot.
Harvard researchers built the RoboBee's body using a technique called "smart composite microstructures," or SCM. The new manufacturing methodology can turn super-stiff, super-strong carbon-reinforced composites into tiny electromechanical components too small for conventional machining.
SCM was used to build RoboBee's flight muscles, thorax, and even its even its wings, which can flap at 120 beats per second, according to the study, published in the journal Science.
RoboBee's wings are controlled independently through artificial ceramic muscles. The ceramic expands and contracts when exposed to an electric field, and the piezoelectric movement can be precisely controlled.
The quarter-sized robot remains tethered to its power source for the time being, but it can hover like a hummingbird, spin in place and flutter from side to side. Lead engineer Robert Wood says he's been trying to make a robot fly this naturally "for literally the last 12 years," according to a statement.
"It's really only because of this lab's recent breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials, and design that we have even been able to try this. And it just worked, spectacularly well."
Lead researcher Kevin Ma suggested the robots could function like real insect and pollinate crops, or be equipped with sensors for environmental monitoring. "We could envision these robots being used for search-and-rescue operations to search for human survivors under collapsed buildings or other hazardous environments," Ma said.