Tiny Drone "Insect" Shrinks the Surveillance State to Aid Disaster Recovery

The bio-inspired device could extend missions into dangerous areas.

by Kastalia Medrano
Science Magazine/ M. A. Graule

Researchers have just unveiled a new robotic “insect” that can not only fly, but perch on a variety of surfaces, including ceilings. Using switchable electrostatic adhesion, the bio-inspired device can land on everything from glass to wood to a leaf while searching for hazardous chemicals, which is its purpose if not what’s most notable about it.

The perching action, which is revolutionary, is facilitated by the electrostatic landing patch attached to the top of the robot. The patch evenly distributes an electric charge, and helps the robot land stick landing by creating an electric field that creates an opposite charge on a surface, resulting in attraction (think: your hair and a balloon). According to Dr. Moritz Alexander Graule of MIT, who created the robot along with several colleagues, the iteration process won’t be done until the mini-drone can do anything a bug can.

“Two things are next,” Graule said. “We want it to be able to perch on vertical walls. If it can [already] perch on a ceiling, it can perch almost anywhere. The other thing is longer-term; the lab would like to integrate onboard power and onboard control. It currently receives control signals through copper wires, it’s still automated control but it’s just done on a computer standing next to it.”

The longer term goals shouldn’t, however, obscure the short-term accomplishment. Creating a device capable of landing on such varied materials is a massive breakthrough because of the power savings it represents. In the future, when the device is decoupled from its wires, it will be able to operate in a variety of circumstances for a very long time by not draining its battery in a hover. Once it can land on almost any surface, it will be able to explore (or monitor) almost any area for long periods of time.

Perching and takeoff of a robotic insect on overhangs using switchable electrostatic adhesion.

M. A. Graule, P. Chirarattananon, S. B. Fuller, N. T. Jafferis, K. Y. Ma, M. Spenko, R. Kornbluh, R. J. Wood

Graule says that vertical wall-perching might be accomplished through electrostatic adhesion, which has allowed existing climbing robots to ascend vertical walls. That requires a smart mechanical design that would allow the researchers to make sure the patch is correctly aligned.

“I think there is 1-2 years of research before we overcome these challenges, but for laboratory conditions,” said co-author Rob Wood in a written statement. “Then probably 5-10 years after that they could be ready for more widespread development and use.”

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