For the first time in the world, researchers at Washington State University (WSU) have designed a robotic bee, named Bee++, capable of steady flight in all directions, including a complex circular motion known as yaw. This exciting breakthrough in robotics, made possible by a confluence of innovative designs and complex control algorithms, has many potential applications from artificial pollination to environmental monitoring and search and rescue efforts.
The Bee++ prototype, built with four carbon fiber and mylar wings and four lightweight actuators, each controlling the wings, was a significant advance in robotics. It is the first of its kind to achieve the six degrees of free movement observed in flying insects. The team led by Néstor O. Pérez-Arancibia, Flaherty associate professor in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, published their research in IEEE Transactions on Robotics and presented their findings at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.
“Researchers have been trying to develop artificial flying insects for more than 30 years,” says Pérez-Arancibia. The creation of these tiny robots required not only a unique design but also the development of a sophisticated controller that mimics the functioning of an insect’s brain. “It’s a mixture of design and robot control,” he added, stressing the importance of creating an ‘artificial brain’ for these tiny robots.
Overcome Some Limitations
The WSU team’s first creation was a bipedal bee robot. However, it was restricted in its movements. To overcome this limitation, Pérez-Arancibia and his PhD students built a quadrupedal robot that was light enough to take off in 2019. It can perform complex maneuvers, throwing and rolling, by flapping its wings in various patterns.
Incorporation of yaw control, however, presents a significant challenge. “If you can’t control the yaw, you are very limited,” says Pérez-Arancibia, explaining that without it, the robot goes out of control, loses focus and crashes. He emphasizes that all degrees of movement are critical for evasive maneuvers or tracking objects.
Taking inspiration from insects, the team introduced a design in which the wings flap in an inclined plane. They also increased their wing beat frequency from 100 to 160 times per second. “Part of the solution was the physical design of the robot, and we also came up with a new design for the controller — the brain that tells the robot what to do,” he added.
Weighing 95 mg with a wingspan of 33 millimeters, the Bee++ is larger than a real bee and is currently only able to fly autonomously for about five minutes at a time. However, these limitations did not dampen the team spirit. They are working to develop other types of insect robots, including crawlers and water striders.
The development of Bee++, which embodies the value of biomimicry and innovation, has been supported by various organizations, including the National Science Foundation, DARPA, WSU Foundation and the Palouse Club through WSU’s Cougar Cage program. With this pioneering work, the future for robotics looks bright, filled with the promise of even more extraordinary developments.