Harvard Researchers Equip Robot Bees with Capacity to Dive in and out of Water

As problems related to the colony collapse disorder continue to escalate, researchers around the world are trying to parse the reasons behind it, as well as develop viable technological solutions for the mid- to long-term.

The most obvious alternative is manufacturing robotic bees, capable of the same functions as their biological counterparts.

To this end, researchers from the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), and the Hansjörg Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard had launched their RoboBee project in 2013, which now produces mechanical bees capable of taking off, flying in the air, sticking to surfaces, and swimming underwater.

Updated version of the RoboBee brings it one step closer to life-like behaviour. Image courtesy of Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Now, as detailed in a paper out in Science Robotics, the research team had finally managed to equip the little critters with the ability to dive in and out of water pools.

Given their extremely low weight (no more than 175 milligrams) and small size, the bees had trouble breaking the surface tension of water, characterised by one of the authors on the study Robert Wood as, “an impenetrable wall”.

As a workaround, the research team had outfitted the robotic insects with a central gas chamber, which contains oxyhydrogen (harvested from water by way of electrolytic plates) – a highly flammable gas that provides the bee with extra buoyancy, allowing it to push its wings out of the water, and then sends it hurtling back into the air as soon as it’s lit by an internal spark.

The method used to fuel the gas chamber is, unfortunately, not workable for higher scale operations because of its production cost in terms of energy (in this case – electricity).

Despite all the changes necessary to provide the robot bees with the ability to break surface tension, there is still not enough space to install sensors and a sophisticated guidance system.

Without the latter, hybrid aerial-aquatic robots such as these will not be able to discharge their function in terms of environmental exploration, pollinating the crops, and taking part in search and rescue missions.

“We hope that our work investigating trade-offs like weight and surface tension can inspire future multi-functional micro-robots – ones that can move on complex terrains and perform a variety of tasks”, said the first author on the study Yufeng Chen.


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