The technology behind bug-sized drones
Thousands of bees fly away, the swarm decides to attack hundreds of human beings who have participated in a hate campaign through social networks. These bees are not really insects, they are small autonomous drones that become vigilantes. The images are part of the last minutes of ‘National hatred’, the final chapter of the third season of the science fiction series ‘Black Mirror’.
And, although it seems a scenario very far from reality, the truth is that the production of small drones that simulate the flight and behavior of flying insects is already a reality. Yes indeed, leaving aside the dystopian factor presented in the Netflix production.
Recently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) presented a new generation of tiny and agile drones that copy the acrobatic and flexible movements of these types of animals, while preserving the dexterity they have.
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“This robot is not easily damaged if it hits a wall or an obstacle. The wing can survive hundreds of consecutive collisions and flutters 500 times per second, giving a resistance similar to that of a flying insect such as a mosquito “, says in dialogue with EL TIEMPO Professor Kevin Chen, member of the research and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at MIT.
So that these devices could replicate the particular flight of insects, the researchers developed a system of soft actuators, which represent the wings of the animal. These allow from performing a somersault to withstanding strong gusts of wind.
The body of these equipment is light, composed mainly of carbon fiber, a polyester membrane and dielectric elastomer, making the device robust enough, but without exceeding a weight of 650 milligrams, which is the one that an adult bumblebee can have.
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Developing these little drones has not been an easy task. One of the most complex challenges you face right now is ensuring the power supply that is needed for your operation. So far they operate in a wired way.
“The robot is tethered for energy, and that is the main technical challenge we are facing right now. We are not yet close to implementing them, especially many of them, in the near future. It also remains to address in depth how to incorporate power and control capacity “Chen says.
This robot is not easily damaged if it collides with a wall or an obstacle
A process of years
Successfully reproducing the movement of small insects has not been an easy task, it is a job that has taken several decades. Since 1970, university researchers began with the idea of developing aerial robots at the scale of these animals. In those early explorations, prototypes with combustion-powered wings were carried out, but they had one main difficulty: they were very difficult to control.
By the late 1990s, the issue gained momentum with the deployment and development of microelectromechanical systems (Mems) technology. This is one of the most important bases in the development of these small drones. The MIT research began in 2005, but it is not the only university that has put efforts into these artifacts.
The Warsaw Polytechnic University developed a robotic bee capable of pollinating. So far they have two prototypes, one flying and the other terrestrial, which have already been successfully tested in open fields.
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Scientists from the Advanced Institute of Industrial Science and Technology (Aist) in Japan have also joined this work. They have also worked on this type of robot, which includes cameras and a GPS system, which allows them to move.
Likewise, the Queen Mary, Sheffield and Sussex universities, in the United Kingdom, have been developing the ‘Brains on Board’ project, which works on the development of flying robots that have the navigation skills that insects have.
The implementation of these drones seeks to revolutionize sectors such as agriculture and industry. The fact that they can move in tight spaces and with crowds offers greater possibilities than current large-size drones, since they require open and wide spaces.
One of the main lines of development of these devices is assisted pollination, especially due to the notable reduction of bees in various parts of the world, which affects food production globally because of them 70 percent depends on agriculture, according to the Earth Watch Institute.
Among the fields of use is also the exploration of complex environments. “For example, in a collapsed building they could be used to search for survivors, or in an engine inspection to check for cracks in the turbine plates,” explains Chen.
In addition, these tiny pieces of equipment become a platform for research into the biology and physics of insect flight. “With this, the mechanics of generating elevators, resilience, control methodology, among other aspects that have been the subject of research for years, can be explained.”Adds the MIT professor.
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“Many of the technological advances of this project can benefit other areas. For example, high power density artificial muscle can be used to power other microscale systems, such as forceps or surgical devices, ”Chen said.
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MARÍA FERNANDA ARBELÁEZ M.