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Insect-like drones: Tiny, agile, and resilient

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These drones are so small that they can fly like insects. Their secret to this groundbreaking capability: MIT Assistant Professor Kevin Yufeng Chen and his co-authors traded in motors and rigid piezoelectric ceramic actuators for more resilient soft actuators—thin rubber cylinders coated in carbon nanotubes.

“When voltage is applied to the carbon nanotubes,” explains MIT News, “they produce an electrostatic force that squeezes and elongates the rubber cylinder. Repeated elongation and contraction causes the drone’s wings to beat — fast.”

soft actuator

…Chen’s actuators can flap nearly 500 times per second, giving the drone insect-like resilience. “You can hit it when it’s flying, and it can recover,” says Chen. “It can also do aggressive maneuvers like somersaults in the air.” And it weighs in at just 0.6 grams, approximately the mass of a large bumblebee. The drone looks a bit like a tiny cassette tape with wings, though Chen is working on a new prototype shaped like a dragonfly.

Drones of this size are hardy and can navigate indoor spaces and outdoor spaces alike. How can you use a drone that’s the size of an insect? Could they pollinate crops or fit into tiny spaces that humans can’t reach?

flying insect drone
File under: Biomimicry. Watch these drones and bots next:
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GimBall by Flyability: A collision-tolerant flying robot
• Harvard’s Soft Robot Walking and Crawling
• Studio Ghibli Tributes: A homemade RC Flaptter and Totoro
• Dancing Paper, 8bit Harmonica, and Musical Umbrella by Ugoita

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