We’ve seen RoboBees that can flystick to walls, and dive into water. Now, get ready for a hybrid RoboBee that can fly, dive into water, swim, propel itself back out of water, and safely land.

New floating devices allow this multipurpose air-water microrobot to stabilize on the water’s surface before an internal combustion system ignites to propel it back into the air.

This latest-generation RoboBee, which is 1,000 times lighter than any previous aerial-to-aquatic robot, could be used for numerous applications, from search-and-rescue operations to environmental monitoring and biological studies.

The research is described in Science Robotics. It was led by a team of scientists from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). 

“This is the first microrobot capable of repeatedly moving in and through complex environments,” says Yufeng Chen, Ph.D., currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wyss Institute who was a graduate student in the Microrobotics Lab at SEAS when the research was conducted and is the first author of the paper. “We designed new mechanisms that allow the vehicle to directly transition from water to air, something that is beyond what nature can achieve in the insect world.”

Designing a millimeter-sized robot that moves in and out of water has numerous challenges. First, water is 1,000 times denser than air, so the robot’s wing flapping speed will vary widely between the two mediums. If the flapping frequency is too low, the RoboBee can’t fly. If it’s too high, the wing will snap off in the water.

By combining theoretical modeling and experimental data, the researchers found the Goldilocks combination of wing size and flapping rate, scaling the design to allow the bee to operate repeatedly in both air and water. Using this multimodal locomotive strategy, the robot to flaps its wings at 220 to 300 hertz in air and nine to 13 hertz in water.

Another major challenge the team had to address: at the millimeter scale, the water’s surface might as well be a brick wall. Surface tension is more than 10 times the weight of the RoboBee and three times its maximum lift. Previous research demonstrated how impact and sharp edges can break the surface tension of water to facilitate the RoboBee’s entry, but the question remained: How does it get back out again?

To solve that problem, the researchers retrofitted the RoboBee with four buoyant outriggers — essentially robotic floaties — and a central gas collection chamber. Once the RoboBee swims to the surface, an electrolytic plate in the chamber converts water into oxyhydrogen, a combustible gas fuel.

This latest-generation RoboBee, which is 1,000 times lighter than any previous aerial-to-aquatic robot, could be used for numerous applications, from search-and-rescue operations to environmental monitoring and biological studies.

The research is described in Science Robotics. It was led by a team of scientists from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). 

“This is the first microrobot capable of repeatedly moving in and through complex environments,” says Yufeng Chen, Ph.D., currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wyss Institute who was a graduate student in the Microrobotics Lab at SEAS when the research was conducted and is the first author of the paper. “We designed new mechanisms that allow the vehicle to directly transition from water to air, something that is beyond what nature can achieve in the insect world.”

Designing a millimeter-sized robot that moves in and out of water has numerous challenges. First, water is 1,000 times denser than air, so the robot’s wing flapping speed will vary widely between the two mediums. If the flapping frequency is too low, the RoboBee can’t fly. If it’s too high, the wing will snap off in the water.

By combining theoretical modeling and experimental data, the researchers found the Goldilocks combination of wing size and flapping rate, scaling the design to allow the bee to operate repeatedly in both air and water. Using this multimodal locomotive strategy, the robot to flaps its wings at 220 to 300 hertz in air and nine to 13 hertz in water.

New, hybrid RoboBee can fly, dive into water, swim, propel itself back out of water, and safely land. The RoboBee is retrofitted with four buoyant and a central gas collection chamber. Once the RoboBee swims to the surface, an electrolytic plate in the chamber converts water into oxyhydrogen, a combustible gas fuel. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Another major challenge the team had to address: at the millimeter scale, the water’s surface might as well be a brick wall. Surface tension is more than 10 times the weight of the RoboBee and three times its maximum lift. Previous research demonstrated how impact and sharp edges can break the surface tension of water to facilitate the RoboBee’s entry, but the question remained: How does it get back out again?

To solve that problem, the researchers retrofitted the RoboBee with four buoyant outriggers — essentially robotic floaties — and a central gas collection chamber. Once the RoboBee swims to the surface, an electrolytic plate in the chamber converts water into oxyhydrogen, a combustible gas fuel.

Source: Wyss Institute