Tiny Flying ’Bots

ROBOTICS

What looks and flies like an insect, but can be used for exploring hazardous environments, search and rescue, and reconnaissance? Answer: a microrobotic dragonfly.

Since last June, Jessica K. Shang ’08 has been working with Robert J. Wood, a professor of engineering and applied sciences, to construct a four-winged microrobotic dragonfly like the two-winged model Wood previously made.

These dragonflies—which Shang said have a wingspan of about 3 centimeters—are part of the broad category of micro air vehicles that Shang described as “small, maneuverable things to go into dangerous situations.”

Microrobotic insects are still very much in the development stage, and Shang said that the main benefit of work in this area so far has been demonstrating that the idea is feasible.

The goal of the research is ultimately to create tiny and agile robots that can be sent places that are perilous or impossible for humans to reach. One possible long-term application is use in search and rescue missions for a nuclear disaster. With the ability to maneuver into small spaces within the debris, the robots would be able to detect carbon dioxide gas and report the location of survivors.

Although the first two models Shang attempted did not meet the standards she had hoped to achieve, she is currently working on a third prototype.

After the insect is complete, which Shang said takes about two weeks if everything goes smoothly, it’s time for testing.

“By testing I mean, does it flap as well as I want it to,” Shang said.

Shang said she is excited about the implications of insect microrobotics both for the engineering field and the study of insect flight mechanics.

Though this subject has been studied extensively, Shang said, in the past researchers either had to catch an insect and videotape it or simulate insects’ wing movements using a computer.

Microrobotics “bridges computational and experimental work on insect flight,” Shang said.

“The level of work that she’s doing right now is first- or second-year graduate work,” Wood said of the engineering sciences concentrator. “She’s been up to every challenge I’ve given her.”

—Staff writer Chelsea L. Shover can be reached at clshover@fas.harvard.edu.

For recent research, faculty profiles, and a look at the issues facing Harvard scientists, check out The Crimson's science page.