Insect-sized bot is first to both fly, land

RoboBee uses static electricity to stick to surfaces

robotic perching insect

STATIC CLING  A sticky electroadhesive patch lets this tiny flying RoboBee (motion slowed to one-eighth real time) cling to the underside of a leaf and use far less energy than it uses flying.  

Carla Schaffer/AAAS

Houseflies stretch their legs to land. Bumblebees hover, then slowly descend. Now, insect-sized flying robots have a way to stick the landing, too.

A tiny aerial bot about the size of a bee (nicknamed RoboBee) uses static electricity to cling to the underside of a leaf and perch on other materials, study coauthor Robert Wood of Harvard University and colleagues report in the May 20 Science.

RoboBee, a bot with shiny, flapping wings and four pinlike legs, is the first of its size that can fly, perch on a surface and then take off again. This energy-saving feat could one day extend mission time in search and rescue operations, the researchers say.

For robots, tackling the problem of flight has been easier than figuring out how to land. “Engineers have been trying to build perching mechanisms for flying robots nearly as long as we have been creating flying robots,” Wood says.

CHARGED UP Affixed to the top of a tiny aerial robot about the size of a quarter, a circular disk holds electrodes that can be charged, letting the bot cling to overhanging surfaces. M.A. Graule et al/Science 2016

Researchers have had success with bigger, bird-sized bots (SN: 2/7/15, p. 18), but their landing mechanisms are tricky to scale down. For the microbot, Wood and colleagues wanted something simple: lightweight and without moving parts.

The team created an “electroadhesive” patch with electrodes that can be charged, letting the patch stick to different surfaces, like a balloon sticking to the wall after being rubbed on someone’s hair.

Switch the electrodes on and the patch, a circular disc on top of the robot, helps RoboBee hang out on overhanging pieces of glass or plywood, for example. Switch the electrodes off and the bot detaches, free to fly again. The sticky contraption lets RoboBee rest between flights: The bot used about a thousandth as much energy perching than hovering, the researchers found.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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