Army lab asks help building wing-flapping robot fly

Army lab program invites investors, engineers to help develop technology like fingernail-sized fly bot whose wings flap without motors.

fruitfly scale active wing arl microrobot credit dod

Piezoelectric material in wing built by Army Research Labs researchers allows fruit-fly-sized micro-robot wing to flap with no motor. Object to the right is a dime.

 

Credit: U.S. Army Research Laboratory, DoD
Artist's conception: Presentation of micro-robot fly U.S. Army Research Labs

Artist illustration: Research Ron Polcawich presenting micro-robot fly project with autonomous prototype flying in the upper right corner.

Researchers at the U.S. Army are taking advantage of an unusually unclassified approach to military systems development to ask for help turning a clever robotic fly into an almost undetectable spy.

The robotic flies are – or will be – semi-autonomous robots that look like real bugs and fly using wings that flap without being controlled by a motor.

Instead, the wings are made from a material known as PZT that generates an electrical charge when it's deformed – and changes its own shape when electricity is applied to it.

The material PZT – lead zirconate titanate – is a ceramic perovskite with strong piezoelectric properties, meaning that it develops an electrical charge under pressure, or when a temperature difference develops between two surfaces.

That property has made them popular with researchers looking for ways to power nano-scale machines so small that there would be no room for connections to a battery, let alone a battery.

Researchers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md. have already come up with one set of "insect-inspired" flying microbots designed to accompany soldiers in the field as remote-controlled scouts small enough to go anywhere and able to navigate on their own with or without GPS and to carry laser range finders, cameras, altimeters and other sensors able to send back critical information. Most are quadrotor fliers that use ultrasonic motors developed at the Army Research Lab that are as small as three millimeters in diameter.

The smallest 'bot currently flying weighs 20 grams.

It is a moose compared to the far tinier metal bugs being developed by another ARL team led by Ronald G. Polcawich, who holds a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering who has spent more than a decade developing ways to get smart-, meta- or weird materials to do the job of motors, hinges and other mechanical bits on machines too small to fit them.

Polcawich – who leads the Piezoelectric-Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems (PiezoMEMS) Technology team Polcawich leads at ARL – has succeeded in building a set of robotic legs for a millipede-like robot that will crawl when voltage is applied.

It has also built wings one- to two inches long made of PZT that bend, flap and create lift when voltage is applied, "so we know this structure has the potential to fly," Polcawich said in an Army press release about a program Polcawich is using to ask for help taking the next micro-robotic, multi-legged step forward.

The "Open Campus" program at ARL that is designed to bolster shrinking R&D budgets and accelerate development of innovative new systems by inviting civilian developers and investors in to help advance them, according to a release reporting 450 university and corporate scientists attended the conference that opened the program Dec. 15 and 16 in Adelphi.

The Open Program would allow outsiders to participate in military development projects under formal Cooperative Research and Development Agreements that would allow the publication of research in peer-reviewed journals, allow outside labs to work on joint projects off campus and allow some ARL staffers to work with outside partners during sabbatical- or "entrepreneurial leave."

The program is an Army effort to counter cuts in funding, but follows the principle that researchers who share their results openly and collaborate on problems one can't solve alone make more progress and solve more complex problems than any single scientist or research lab can accomplish alone, according a statement quoting Selena Russell, an ARL researcher with a long list of publications about her work developing lighter, more powerful lithium batteries.

Polcawich is hoping the Open Campus crowd will take an interest in his lab's work on piezolectrics and micro-fliers and help accelerate the development of the artificial-intelligence-like "cognitive ability" so tiny a robot would need to keep itself in the air and on course.

The PZT micro-fly shows promise, but is currently the lowest-funded program of the ten development projects underway in Polcawich's lab – projects focused on IED-defeat systems, tactical radio networks, positioning, navigation and timing systems and other things that are higher priorities for the Dept. of Defense than a thumbnail-sized flying robot that may not be fully able to function on its own for 10 to 15 years.

"The Open Campus effort will hopefully streamline the creative process," Polcawich said.

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