Harvard's Robobee Has Insect-Inspired Eyes
Harvard has created a tiny robotic Robobee that can fly straight and true using only its on-board sensory apparatus. Since the physical constraints of the device do not permit a camera, researchers designed a light sensor inspired by the ocelli of insects themselves.
(Harvard Robobee video)
Scaling a flying robot down to the size of a fly or bee requires advances in manufacturing, sensing and control, and will provide insights into mechanisms used by their biological counterparts. Controlled flight at this scale has previously required external cameras to provide the feedback to regulate the continuous corrective manoeuvres necessary to keep the unstable robot from tumbling.
One stabilization mechanism used by flying insects may be to sense the horizon or Sun using the ocelli, a set of three light sensors distinct from the compound eyes. Here, we present an ocelli-inspired visual sensor and use it to stabilize a fly-sized robot.
We propose a feedback controller that applies torque in proportion to the angular velocity of the source of light estimated by the ocelli. We demonstrate theoretically and empirically that this is sufficient to stabilize the robot's upright orientation.
This constitutes the first known use of onboard sensors at this scale.
Dipteran flies use halteres to provide gyroscopic velocity feedback, but it is unknown how other insects such as honeybees stabilize flight without these sensory organs. Our results, using a vehicle of similar size and dynamics to the honeybee, suggest how the ocelli could serve this role.
Of course, other small flying robots are being worked on.
The scarab flying robot insect from Raymond Z. Gallun's 1936 short story The Scarab is a very early description of a fly-sized flying robotic device:
The Scarab paused on its perch for a moment, as if to determine for itself whether it was perfectly fit for action. It was a tiny thing, scarcely more than an inch and a half in length... Its body had a metallic sheen, and its vitals were far more intricate than those of the finest watch...
It's interesting to me that Gallun didn't give the Scarab a camera to see with, even though photography was well developed (and television had been demonstrated) by 1936. Instead, Gallun equipped his robotic insect with minute vision tubes to image its surroundings.
Via Controlling free flight of a robotic fly using an onboard vision sensor inspired by insect ocelli.
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