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Harvard scientists make robot insect; it took 12 years and flew 12 seconds

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Harvard scientists have succeeded in building a flying robot insect, smaller than a penny and weighing less than one-tenth of a gram -- it took them 12 years and the robot is powered and controlled by a wire from a base station.

A peer-reviewed paper published Friday in the prestigious journal "Science" documents the achievement, which is judged considerable because of the, ahem, scale of the engineering challenges.

The remote-controlled flying robot, dubbed RoboBee, has wafer-thin wings less than a centimeter long that beat 120 times a second.

Building motors so small that run so fast, explained lead RoboBee builder Prof. Robert J. Woods, was only made possible by "recent breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials, and design" at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

"Large robots can run on electromagnetic motors, but at this small scale you have to come up with an alternative, and there wasn't one," added his collaborator Kevin Y. Ma, a graduate student at the school.

Prof. Wood and Mr. Ma, along with Pakpong Chirarattananon and Sawyer B. Fuller, wrote the "Science" paper.

"We demonstrated tethered but unconstrained stable hovering and basic controlled flight maneuvers," the authors state.

"This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years," said Prof. Wood in a statement.

The prototype RoboBee is tethered to a base station by a very fine cable because there are not as yet any batteries for power or computers for control small enough to be mounted on its body.

The scientists say there are many more breakthroughs needed before the RoboBee will be able to fly independently. Eventually, they believe the robots will be able to help the real bees with crop pollination.

Click here to see a video of the robotic insect.


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About the Author
Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...

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