Robotic 'insects' prepare to battle

Robotic ‘insects’ prepare to battle
Tom Foremski Flying robots the size of insects is the goal of a team of US researchers at the University of California. The group is developing the robots using silicon-based micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS). The tiny robots will be aimed at battlefield operations but could also find use in applications such as pollution monitoring and agriculture. “The beauty of very small robots is that you can produce lots of them very cheaply and you can use them in large numbers,” said Ron Fearing, associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley who is leading the project. The project is developing a prototype wing with a 2cm span. “We are working on adapting various MEMS to help provide the mechanical structure and we are looking at solar cells to provide the power source,” said Fearing. “A key breakthrough is using a single crystal piezoelectric activator to flap the wings.” Although insects are the inspiration for the design, Fearing says that insect bodies are too complex to copy directly. Fearing’s proposal is to use polycrystaline silicon for the wings and integrating a range of sensors. “There are military uses but there are also potential uses in sending out swarms of these flying robots to detect sources of pollution, and in monitoring fields for pests and related data,” said Fearing. The project, funded from the US Department of Defense, is still in its infancy. Fearing expects it will take several years before a robotic insect takes to the air.

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