Researchers create new robotic bee with full freedom of movement

The Bee++, a new insect-sized robot, has the full six degrees of movement that a real insect has.
John Loeffler
A worker bee pollinating a flower
A worker bee pollinating a flower

Heather Broccard-Bell / iStock 

A new robot affectionately called Bee++ can fly around with a full six degrees of freedom, marking an incredible advance in miniature robotics that has the potential to help with everything from artificial pollination to search and rescue operations.

The robot, developed by a team of researchers at Washington State University (WSU), has four wings made out of carbon fiber and mylar and a lightweight actuator to control the wing. It is the first robot of its kind to fly stably in all directions, according to a WSU statement, including the twisting motion known as yaw — typically the hardest for robots to manage successfully.

The research team, led by Néstor O. Pérez-Arancibia, the Flaherty associate professor at WSU's School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, published their report on Bee++ this week in the journal IEEE Transactions on Robotics, and Pérez-Arancibia is set to present the report at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, set for the end of June.

The robot is decades in the making, with robotics researchers around the world looking to develop an artificial flying insect that could someday provide new ways to pollinate plants, carry out biological research, and conduct search and rescue operations in tight environments, like a collapsed building or structure.

In order to create the robot, researchers had to effectively remake the brain of an insect digitally using special controllers.

“It’s a mixture of robotic design and control,” Pérez-Arancibia said. “Control is highly mathematical, and you design a sort of artificial brain. Some people call it the hidden technology, but without those simple brains, nothing would work.”

In 2019, Pérez-Arancibia and two PhD students built a four-winged insect robot that was light enough to lift off as well as pitch and roll, giving it four degrees of freedom, but the final two degrees, known as yaw, was harder to implement.

“If you can’t control yaw, you’re super limited,” Pérez-Arancibia said. “If you’re a bee, here is the flower, but if you can’t control the yaw, you are spinning all the time as you try to get there.”

“The system is highly unstable, and the problem is super hard,” he continued. “For many years, people had theoretical ideas about how to control yaw, but nobody could achieve it due to actuation limitations.”

At just 95mg and possessing a 33mm wingspan, the bee robot is still larger than your average bee by a hactor of nearly ten, but it's an important step in the development of functional robots at this scale, and one of the biggest hurdles to their development has been cleared.

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