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Harvard's Robobee learning to fly


October 9, 2012

Harvard researchers are developing a feedback controller that should allow the Robobee to hover and perform controlled flight

Harvard researchers are developing a feedback controller that should allow the Robobee to hover and perform controlled flight

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Harvard researchers are getting closer to their goal of developing a controllable micro air vehicle called the Robobee. The tiny robot was already capable of taking off under its own power, but until now it was completely out of control. By adding two control actuators beneath its wings, the robot can be programmed to pitch and roll.

The team is now working on a feedback controller that will allow the robot to yaw, which when combined with pitch and roll should allow it to hover. Until then, the Robobee is still just crashing, albeit in more spectacular fashion than it did before. Eventually, it could be mass-produced to perform pollination or assist in search and rescue operations (along with a variety of other things).

Meanwhile, the Green Brain project underway at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex in England may provide the necessary artificial intelligence for such a robot. The ambitious project seeks to build a working simulation of a bee's brain by mapping the complex neural connections that process the bee's senses. This simulation could then be harnessed, enabling a robot to make navigational decisions on its own.

"Because the honey bee brain is smaller and more accessible than any vertebrate brain, we hope to eventually be able to produce an accurate and complete model that we can test within a flying robot," said Dr James Marshall, a computer scientist at the University of Sheffield.

However, it seems unlikely that the two projects will be compatible any time soon. Simulating even an insect's brain requires some intense hardware – in this case, the researchers are working with NVIDIA graphics cards normally reserved for the latest video games. It will be awhile before that kind of processing power can be carried on Robobee's miniscule frame. You can see it performing some in-flight maneuvers in the video below.

Sources: Harvard Robobees and University of Sussex via IEEE Spectrum and BBC

About the Author
Jason Falconer Jason is a freelance writer based in central Canada with a background in computer graphics. He has written about hundreds of humanoid robots on his website Plastic Pals and is an avid gamer with an unsightly collection of retro consoles, cartridges, and controllers. All articles by Jason Falconer

Too many accented syllables. Robee would be a better name.


Looks like it has a ways to go before it can do stable flight.

Michael Crumpton

He said as a Robobee hovered behind him taking aim...


Presumably immune to insecticides, this baby will take over pollination duties from rapidly declining bee populations. And no more of those pesky summer stings. Technology. It's the answer to everything.

Russ Pinney

just add a mini poison dart and our military can take out anyone, anytime, anywhere.


Welcome to the age of total surveillance.


From it's humble beginnings building robotic honey bees, Skynet evolved into a tech giant that some feel may one day take over the world of technology as we know it.


the problem i see is a gust of wind blowing about a hundred of these into a puddle; then an animal comes along and gets intestinal bleeding from all the metal passing through it. but aside from worst case scenarios it seems like a cool idea.

Ariel Gonzalez
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