I did a number of stories on the original robobee flapping wing robotic insect (see below, click through to see sfnal precursors), but diligent USC researchers have made improvements. Behold Bee+ aka Bee plus.
(Bee+ robo bee plus flying robot)
Enter Xiufeng Yang and pals from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. These guys have developed actuators that are half the weight of previous versions. They used four of them to build a robot with four flapping wings, each with a span of just 33 milimeters. The result is an insect-like flying machine called Bee+. It’s capable of perching, landing, following a path, and avoiding obstacles.
The breakthrough is based on a clever piece of engineering. The actuators in the 2013 RoboBee were of a type called bimorphs. These are cantilevers made of two layers of piezoelectric material separated by a passive layer. The piezoelectric layers alternately contract, forcing the cantilever to bend back and forth. This motion drives the flapping of a wing.
But Yang and co have found a way to make them even lighter using an actuator design called a unimorph. Instead of two layers of piezoelectric material, a unimorph uses a single strip attached to a passive layer. The repeated contraction of the piezoelectric layer causes the cantilever to bend. And the movement of the tip of the cantilever drives the flapping of a wing.
Indeed, more advances are desperately needed. Bee+ may be inspired by insects, but at 95 milligrams, it is a behemoth compared with the real creatures. A bumblebee, for example, weighs about a 10 milligrams and is self-powered to boot.
Robobee is a pretty cool flying robot; see these additional stories for science fiction references: