Insect-like drones have taken a big step forward to become a practical reality. Researchers from Harvard, MIT and the City University of Hong Kong have developed tiny insect-inspired drones that can not only maneuver in extremely tight spaces, but withstand shocks if things go wrong. The key is a switch to an actuation system that can make drones’ wings flap while surviving its fair share of abuse.
To date, drone makers wanting to go this small have had to ditch motors (which lose efficiency in small sizes) in favor of ceramic-based piezoelectric rigid actuators. The new drones are based on flexible actuators made from rubber cylinders coated with carbon nanotubes. When you put these nanotubes under stress, they squeeze and stretch the rubber to flap the wings of the drones almost 500 times per second.
As you can guess, the combination is quite effective. Although drones are “centimeter-scale,” they can squeeze through small areas, perform tight maneuvers (including rollovers), and survive some crashes unscathed. They weigh as little as a bumblebee, too, at around 0.02 oz.
There are many limitations at this point. Insect-style drones are always attached to power sources, and there’s so much intelligence you can pack into such a tiny robot. They are far from being used in practice.
If scientists can fix these problems, however, the impact could be significant. MIT Assistant Professor Kevin Yufeng Chen envisions tiny drones capable of inspecting machines, or even bee-like robots that artificially pollinate crops. Indeed, these extra-small devices could conquer a final frontier for drones, reaching environments where conventional drones simply cannot go.