Science

MIT is drawing inspiration from the insects for the next generation of drones

We’ve all been standing outside at some point and have little flying insects like mosquitoes constantly flying around our face or ears no matter how many times we flush them away. Small flying insects have incredible agility that allows them to avoid hitting hands and other obstacles while flying in the air. MIT Associate Professor Kevin Yufeng Chen has built a new flying robot system that approaches the agility of insects in the air.

Chen works in the Department of Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, and the Electronics Research Laboratory. Have This is a development Insect-sized drones have incredible skill and flexibility. Flying robots are powered by a new type of soft actuator, allowing them to withstand the shocks and bruises that come with flying in the real world. Chen predicts a future in which adorable little flying machines can help humans with tasks like pollinating crops or checking machines in confined spaces.

Most drones have to operate outdoors due to their lack of agility, which prevents them from navigating in confined spaces. It also lacks the strength required to survive collisions with other objects. Building small drones requires fundamentally different operations compared to larger drones. The motors usually power large drones, but these motors are ineffective when downsized to the sizes required for small drones.

Chen and his team designed a small, more flexible drone using soft actuators rather than the hard and brittle units used on other flying machines. The soft actuators used are made of thin rubber cylinders covered with carbon nanotubes. The application of stress to the carbon nanotubes causes them to produce an electrostatic force that compresses and lengthens the rubber roller. When this voltage is applied repeatedly, the wings of the drones pulse at a rapid pace.

The engines can flap about 500 times per second, Chen says, giving the small drone the bug’s flexibility, allowing it to collide with objects, recover and continue flying. The drone weighs only 0.6 grams, which makes it roughly the same mass as a large bee. It’s like a small cassette tape with wings, but the team is working on a new dragonfly design.

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