Robotic Bees: Researchers Develop Fully Omnidirectional Flying Robot


In a world first, researchers at Washington State University (WSU) have designed a robotic bee, named Bee++, capable of stable flight in all directions, including the intricate twisting motion known as yaw. This fascinating breakthrough in the field of robotics, enabled by a confluence of innovative design and complex control algorithms, has a multitude of potential applications ranging from artificial pollination to environmental monitoring and search and rescue efforts.

The Bee++ prototype, constructed with four carbon fiber and mylar wings and four lightweight actuators, each controlling a wing, represents a significant advancement in robotics. It is the first of its kind to accomplish 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 the 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,” said Pérez-Arancibia. The creation of these tiny robots requires not only a unique design but also the development of advanced controllers that mimic the functioning of an insect brain. “It’s a mixture of robotic design and control,” he added, emphasizing the importance of creating an ‘artificial brain’ for these tiny robots.

Overcoming Several Limitations

The WSU team’s first creation was a two-winged robotic bee. However, it was restricted in its movements. To overcome this limitation, Pérez-Arancibia and his PhD students built a four-winged robot light enough to take off in 2019. The robot could execute complex maneuvers, pitching and rolling, by flapping its wings in varied patterns.

The incorporation of yaw control, however, presented a significant challenge. “If you can’t control yaw, you’re super limited,” said Pérez-Arancibia, explaining that without it, robots spin out of control, lose focus, and crash. He emphasized that all degrees of movement are critically important for evasive maneuvers or tracking objects.

Taking inspiration from insects, the team introduced a design where the wings flap in an angled plane. They also increased the wing flap frequency from 100 to 160 times per second. “Part of the solution was the physical design of the robot, and we also invented a new design for the controller — the brain that tells the robot what to do,” he added.

At 95 mg with a 33-millimeter wingspan, the Bee++ is larger than real bees and currently only capable of autonomous flight for about five minutes at a time. But these limitations have not dampened the team’s spirits. They are working to develop other types of insect robots, including crawlers and water striders.

The development of Bee++, an embodiment of the value of biomimicry and innovation, has been supported by various organizations, including the National Science Foundation, DARPA, the WSU Foundation, and the Palouse Club through WSU’s Cougar Cage program. With this pioneering work, the future of robotics looks bright, teeming with the promise of even more ground-breaking developments.

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