BOSTON, May 19 (UPI) -- Engineers at MIT and Harvard have designed a tiny bee-like robot capable of pausing mid-flight to perch on a variety of objects before once again taking to the air. The robot uses static electricity to momentarily cling to the underside of objects.
Robots designed for aerial surveys and related observational tasks, like quadcopters, are currently limited by short flight times. They tend to run out of battery rather quickly. While perching won't extend a drone's actual time in the air, the technology could empower UAVs to employ their power more strategically -- periodically taking a moment to rest their wings, or blades.
Researchers tested their technology on RoboBee, a bug-like flying robot no bigger than a quarter. A small jolt of static electricity emitted through a tiny foam patch on the bee's head allows it to land on and adhere to the underside of a plant or to the ceiling.
The technology is in its infancy, and a number of kinks still need to be worked out. It's easily thrown out of whack by disturbances in the air. And currently, it relies on external camera sensors to guide its flight. Eventually, scientists hope to integrate internal control mechanisms and scale up the RoboBee's size so it's more stable.
Scientists believe the RoboBee's perching ability could eventually improve the performance of robots used in search and rescue missions -- or "basically any situation where you want to have low cost and distributed sensing [that] would be too difficult or too dangerous for a human," researcher Robert Wood told Mashable.
Wood is the co-author of a new paper on the technology, published this week in the journal Science.
Researcher Mirko Kovac wrote an essay accompaniment to the study. In it, he detailed the possibilities enabled by the land-and-attach technology.
"Perching onto structures can save energy and maintain a high, stable observation or resting position," Kovac wrote.
Kovac thinks the next step is to incorporate renewable energy sources, like small solar cells, so a miniature drone could recharge as it rests.