WSU researchers develop robotic bee that can fly like real bees

The bee is capable of flight in all directions and can also perform the challenging yaw motion.
Ameya Paleja
The robotic bee developed by researchers at WSU
The robotic bee developed by researchers at WSU

Washington State University 

Researchers at the Washington State University (WSU) in the U.S. have successfully developed a robotic bee that can fly just like a real bee marking a significant development in robotics.

Called Bee++, the robotic counterpart has four wings, each fitted with independent lightweight actuators that can control the wing independently. This design enables the robotic bee to emulate the six degrees of freedom movement in natural flying insects.

The robotic bee weighs 95 mg, much more than the naturally occurring bees that weigh around 10 mg but could be deployed to carry out activities such as artificial pollination in areas where natural pollinators are scarce or even assist in search and rescue operations in confined spaces.

Thinking like an insect brain

The research effort was led by Néstor O. Pérez-Arancibia, an associate professor at WSU's School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, who has been working on developing artificial insects for the past three decades.

His earlier work focused on developing a robotic bee with two wings, but it only had limited mobility. In 2019, his research team achieved a breakthrough by constructing a four-winged robot that was light enough to achieve liftoff. However, even achieving liftoff and landing alone required that the controllers act as an insect brain does.

WSU researchers develop robotic bee that can fly like real bees
Artificial insects could be used in conditions where natural insects are scarce

To achieve specific maneuvers, the researchers devised specific flapping patterns for the front wings when compared to the back wings for pitching and for the right wings compared to the left wings to enable rolling. The differential in the flapping action creates a torque that allows Bee++ to rotate about its primary horizontal axes.

The researchers were also able to emulate the complex yaw motion in flight, which enables the robotic bee to maintain stability and focus on specific points during the flight. To achieve this control, the researchers implemented a design where the wings flap in an angled plane, mimicking the motion seen in natural insect wings. The adaptation allows the robot to twist in a controlled manner giving it better maneuverability.

The researchers also increased the frequency of wing flapping from 100 to 160 times per second, generating the necessary lift and agility for stable flight. Currently, Bee++ only has an autonomous flight time of five minutes. It, therefore, needs to remain connected to a power source.

Apart from the Bee, the researchers have also worked on developing other robots inspired by insects like crawlers and water striders.

The research findings were published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Robotics.

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