Students study bugs to build robots
Mark Atwater posted on August 12, 2013 | 11725 views

The world is shrinking - so they say - and so is technology. Even so, insects are still considered really small, especially when thinking about robotics. This provides opportunities and challenges when looking toward nature for design inspiration. A group of undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Virginia is up for both.

The group is studying the details of insect flight in order to create a basic framework for designing tiny, flying robots.

The opportunity in this work begins with the plethora of subjects. There are many flying insects and a great diversity of flight characteristics among them. Think dragon flies vs. stink bugs. Very different “architectures,” but both achieve the same basic function.

Students in the Flow Simulation Research Group are observing insects in untethered flight. They use three cameras that record at 1,000 frames per second.  They can then use the data to recreate the insect's flight as a 3-D model. By using high-speed videography, they can accurately determine the complex flight dynamics.

The students are seeing real-world concepts from fluid dynamics, aerodynamic performance, and solid mechanics. The goal is to ultimately build a working micro air vehicle (MAV). That is the challenge. Recreating these miniature systems is difficult as small components have unique design considerations.

So, do we really need robotic “insects?” According to third-year undergraduate engineering student, Yousaf Bajwa, the answer is yes. “Let's say there is a fire or something and it is a hazardous site. You can't send people in there so you send a fleet of micro-air vehicles in there to do the same job for you.”

By distributing tasks among many robots, information can be continuously relayed and group efficiency can be increased. This has been demonstrated in other, ground-based robots. Some of these also take inspiration from insects such as ants, termites, and centipedes. In addition to rescue operations, tasks commonly envisioned for these robots include environmental sampling, exploration, and construction. Oh yeah, and spying.

The UVA students are building a foundation to make possible many new advances in micro aerial robotics. The US Air Force hopes to enlist this technology by 2030. As this technology matures, the only thing more disgruntling than a fly in your food is the thought that it might be something much more sophisticated. Take that to your next picnic.


 A video related to the research is below. For more "bugged out" robots, see Discover Magazine here.


Image courtesy of: Itai Cohen Group of Cornell University (

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