MIT US Air Force Micro Drone Bird Insect
Photo credit: Kevin Yufeng Chen
Researchers, led by MIT Assistant Professor Kevin Yufeng Chen, have developed insect-like robots that could eventually be used as drones. Unlike previous robots, this one utilizes a new class of soft actuator that enables them to withstand the physical travails of real-world flight. Whether it be for pollinating crop, performing machinery inspections in cramped spaces, or even military surveillance missions, this robot is up for the task.

Instead of the typical small, rigid actuator built from piezoelectric ceramic materials, Chen’s robot uses more resilient soft actuators made from thin rubber cylinders coated in carbon nanotubes. When you apply voltage to the carbon nanotubes, they produce an electrostatic force that squeezes and elongates the rubber cylinder. By simply repeating the elongation and contraction process, the drone’s wings start beating.

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Achieving flight with a centimeter-scale robot is always an impressive feat. Because of the soft actuators’ inherent compliance, the robot can safely run into obstacles without greatly inhibiting flight. This feature is well-suited for flight in cluttered, dynamic environments and could be very useful for any number of real-world applications,” said Farrell Helbling, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University, who was not involved in the research.

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