robot bee

Tiny combustible rockets use in robot bees can now dive in and out of water


Harvard’s robot bees have really evolved over the years. The RoboBee project was 1st unveiled in 2013, when the bots were only capable of takeoff and flying. Since then, they’ve been changed to stick to surfaces and swim underwater, and currently their creators say they’re able to dive in and out of water — a giant achievement for a little robot bee.

Getting out of the water is usually pretty easy for humans, but it’s a challenge for anything as little as an insect. The RoboBee weighs just 175 milligrams (that’s fourteen times lighter than a cent), and at this size, surface tension is like additional strong gravity: it’s 10 times the robot’s weight, and 3 times its lifting power. “The force from surface tension seems like an impenetrable wall,” said Harvard professor of engineering Robert Wood during a press release. Imagine that next time you’re getting out of the bath.


To solve this problem, researchers from Harvard’s outfitted the RoboBee with a little combustible rocket, giving it the oomph required to break the water’s surface tension. Gas fills a chamber within the RoboBee’s interior, it’s lit by an internal spark, and woosh, it shoots out of the water. Or, as it’s described in a paper published in the journal Science robotics today: “The robot [assumes] a ballistic trajectory.”


What’s cleverest regarding this technique is that it actually uses the water itself as fuel. A pair of tiny electrolytic plates convert the liquid into oxyhydrogen, a violently explosive gas. (And if you’re wondering why we don’t use this kind of gas more often, it’s because it prices a lot of energy, within the form of electricity, to produce.)


To fit in all this extra gear, the RoboBee had to be redesigned, with a central gas chamber added, along with four buoyant outriggers — robot floaties, basically. Still, there’s no space on board for sensors or a sophisticated guidance system. so although the new RoboBee can fly, land in water, paddle about, then burst out again, it can’t be remotely controlled, and it isn’t yet capable of doing helpful bee tasks like pollinating the crops we all depend upon to live. Hopefully that’s next on the list.


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