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Science in Mind

Robot ‘fly’ is big step for Harvard researchers

The use of technology for bug-sized robots is unclear, but could range from surveillance to pollinating crops.

Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon/Harvard University

The use of technology for bug-sized robots is unclear, but could range from surveillance to pollinating crops.

Harvard University researchers have for the first time replicated in a tiny, bug-like robot the agility of the common fly. With a gossamer body of microscale electronics, the penny-sized robot can lift off, hover, and maneuver — albeit only while tethered to a leash that supplies power and provides information about its location in mid-air.

“It’s the goal of creating the most agile manmade thing that’s ever existed,” said Rob Wood, an engineering professor at Harvard and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

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The progress reported Thursday in the journal Science is the culmination of more than a decade of work, and is an important step toward building a colony of RoboBees that can fly by themselves and coordinate their collective movements to achieve tasks.

It is still unclear what the best application would be for a fleet of airborne bug-sized robots, but the technology could have a wide range of uses, from surveillance to pollinating crops.

Wood said he tries to steer clear of discussing the applications of his wing-flapping fly robots, in part because he is wary of the bias that appears in nearly every work of science fiction.

Once a robot appears in the plot, Wood notes, things most likely won’t end well for the people. He does not see that as an issue for his tiny robots.

For one thing, the delicate feats of flying are impressive, but they are not all that robust yet. Nearly every trial ends with a crash, and the prototypes don’t last forever.

Wood sees the real, short-term rewards of his robot-building efforts in technologies that may have little to do with mimicking insect flight: the lighter, smaller electronic components necessary to build the robots could spur a new generation of gadgets.

A former student has founded a Cambridge start-up company called Vibrant Research that is working on commercializing some of the technologies and manufacturing techniques developed in the laboratory.

Keep up with the Science in Mind blog throughout the week at boston.com/scienceinmind. Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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