When Robert Wood came to Harvard University 17 years ago, he wanted to design an insect-sized robot that could fly.
You might wonder why anyone would ever need such a thing, but the engineering professor was intrigued by the technical challenge and how difficult it would be to pull off.
“Flight at small scales was at the time — and still is — a very hard problem,” Wood said during a recent tour of his lab in Harvard’s new Science and Engineering Complex in Allston. “How do we actually build the thing? How do we think about control for something that is unstable? All of these things individually are pretty significant challenges.”
Wood has since become known for a two-wing flying robot, barely larger than a quarter, dubbed the “RoboBee,” which represents years of advances in design, materials, and manufacturing. Last month, technology from the project was commercialized for the first time, spinning out as a surgical-robot startup backed by venture capital firm 1955 Capital.
RoboBee was funded by $10 million in grants from the National Science Foundation. Its evolution into a company says a lot about how schools like Harvard are doing more to encourage entrepreneurship.
The RoboBee first took flight in 2012, connected to a tether that provided a power supply. In 2019, it became the lightest object to take off and fly on its own. Wood noted that, despite its name, the RoboBee moves more like a fly, since it only has two wings; bees have four. (The name comes from the idea of coordinating the robots in a swarm.)
When it takes off, its little wings flap about 150 times per second, but a slowed-down video of the wings resembles a human treading water.
“It’s never really been about, ‘Oh, I’m going to start a company based upon this,’” he said. But that changed recently, he said, mostly because of a growing push at Harvard to move research from its labs into the real world.
“When I first started, that mindset wasn’t as prominent as it is today,” he said. “Now, you look around and you see things all over the place within Harvard and MIT... The younger generation of students that come in have already started companies.”
The RoboBee project is part of Harvard’s Wyss Institute — where Wood is an associate faculty member— which focuses on licensing bio-inspired technology and spinning out companies. And Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which houses Wood’s lab, launched an accelerator program in September.
Wood was connected to venture capitalist and Harvard alum Andrew Chung by the school’s SEAS dean, Frank Doyle, during the pandemic. The managing partner of 1955 Capital said he’s been investing in surgical-robotics companies for the past decade.
“The one key thing that we have been dreaming about is how we can make the robotic arms a lot smaller,” Chung said. “Not necessarily what other VCs might be thinking, which is maybe 15 to 20 percent smaller. We’re thinking 90 percent smaller.”
Chung noticed how the RoboBee was designed and manufactured — Wood got his inspiration from origami and children’s-book layering and folding techniques — and thought it could help make better small-scale surgical robots.
“Thinking about how to shrink these devices to insect size or smaller opens up a whole range of possibilities that even surgeons haven’t quite imagined,” Chung said.
For now, the startup is called Project 1985, a reference to the year the first robotic-assisted surgery took place. The company will initially focus on neurosurgery, urology, and lung surgery. Wood will serve as an advisor.
Back at Harvard, Wood is still working on ways to make the RoboBee fly more smoothly. And students in his lab are building legs that will allow the robot to land without crashing.
“It might sound like something we should have gotten to a long time ago,” Wood said.
Though the RoboBee itself won’t become a surgical robot, it seems to have taken on a life of its own. Wood’s lab is decorated with stickers and posters of a bug, with the Harvard shield as the body, and wings and legs on either side. A decal on the front door has black Converse sneakers taped to the bug’s feet, an homage to Wood’s daily attire.
Wood said the shoes must have been added by his students. “I didn’t draw that conclusion until recently,” he said.