Sweet! Tiny, far-flying robot based on honeybee

Researchers working on agile, self-navigating 'robotbee' capable of flying around the world using little fuel

To develop tiny flying robots that are agile and can navigate on their own, researchers in Australia are turning to the honeybee.

That's right. The honeybee is a fuel-efficient flyer that uses its eyes, antennae and abdomen to direct itself and to fly using as little energy as possible. Scientists at the University of Queensland expect that those attributes will help them design robotic "robotbee" flyers.

"The bees are living proof that it's possible to engineer airborne vehicles that are agile, navigationally competent, weigh less than 100 milligrams, and can fly around the world using the energy given by an ounce of honey," said Mandyam Srinivasan, a professor at the university's Queensland Brain Institute. "Honeybees often have to travel very long distances with only a small amount of nectar, so they have to be as fuel-efficient as possible. They achieve this by raising their abdomen to reduce drag so they can fly at high speeds while using less energy."

Honeybees use vision to judge their air speed and then move their abdomens to make their bodies more fuel efficient.

"When we trick a honeybee into thinking that it's flying forward by running background images past its eyes, the bee will move its body into a flying position despite being tethered," said Gavin Taylor, a graduate student at the university. "The faster we move the images, the higher it lifts its abdomen to prepare for rapid flight."

The honeybee also uses its antenna to judge the speed of the air flow going past its body. If the antenna isn't functioning normally, it relies solely on its eyesight.

"A better understanding of how honeybees fly takes us one step further towards perfecting the flying machines," said Srinivasan.

Nature has long provided research data to scientists developing robotic machines.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University built a snake-like robot to crawl through and inspect pipes and other hard to reach systems of nuclear power plants.

A squishy robot built by researchers at Harvard University is based on the design of creatures like starfish and squid to let it disguise itself and change colors.

Researchers at the University of Bath built a swimming robot that is powered by a Amazonian knifefish-type fin instead of a more boat-like propeller.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies