Video: This Robot Fly is Straight Out of a Spy Novel

A Harvard research team has unveiled an exciting new innovation in robotics technology, which they say will greatly expand the amount of time flying robots can spend in the field. Just as birds, bees, and bats can’t fly indefinitely, neither can drones, so the Harvard researchers went looking for a way for insect-sized robots to cling to surfaces as needed.

In a new study published this May in Science, the Harvard Microrobotics Lab and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences showed off their new creation. The robo-bee uses static electricity to cling to a wide variety of surfaces. The robot hangs upside down like a bat thanks to an electrostatic landing patch, which evenly distributes the static electric charge.

The robo-bee weights about 100 milligrams, only slightly more than an actual bee. There’s just one problem. Microrobots are often so small that they can’t carry a power source, meaning they have to be “tethered” to an electrical source. So while the lab was showing off their new sticky robot, another team was unveiling their “flying moth,” an untethered microrobot. Or, in technical terms, an “insect-scale flapping-wing micro-air vehicle.”

It’s an exciting time for the field of robotics, which have recently gone mainstream with the popularity of consumer drones.

And while the Harvard Microrobotics Lab tries to make robots smaller, NASA scientists are building robots that could one day roam the surface of Mars.

Already, roboticists are designing robots that can handle extreme temperatures and pressures, for underwater, volcanic, or outer space applications. Already, even commonly available robotics components can handle temperatures ranging from negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

In preparation for a future trip to the Red Planet, the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston has sent some of its prized anthropomorphic Valkyrie robots to labs in Massachusetts and Scotland. Right now, the humanoid robots are robotics center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, where professors and students are working hard to expand their capabilities. With a time delay between earth and mars, the Valkyrie robots will need to become more autonomous.

“The rovers get their instructions uploaded at the beginning of the day,” said Robert Platt, an assistant professor at Northeastern University and part of the Valkyrie research team. “Those instructions amount to, ‘Go over there,’ or, ‘Check out that rock.’ It’s a completely different ballgame when the job for the day is to assemble a couple of habitats.”

Unfortunately for all mankind, the scientists have plenty of time to tinker. Even in a best case scenario, NASA doesn’t expect to send anyone to Mars until 2035.

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