It’s A Bee! It’s A Dragonfly! It’s A Robot!

12:04 minutes

GIF of the air-to-water (top panels) and the water-to-air transition (bottom panels).
Credit: Yufeng Chen, E. Farrell Helbling, and Hongqiang Wang

Last year, the group created the RoboBee, a buzzing bot the size of a bee that could hover and perch in the air and potentially help pollinate flowers. Now, researchers from the Harvard Microrobotics Lab have engineered a robot that can not only flap its wings, but also dive into water and swim. To move between water and air, the robo-insect chemically decomposes water into gases and uses those for ignition. This capability of navigating between air and water could be useful in the future for underwater search-rescue operations and to monitor water quality.

Farrell Helbling, a Ph.D. candidate in the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University and one of the researchers on the project, joins Ira to talk about the latest member of the robo-insect family whose exploits appear in the journal Science Robotics.

[Coming soon: Cyborg bacteria!]

Watch the full video here:

Segment Guests

Farrell Helbling

E. Farrell Helbling is a Ph.D. candidate in the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, an update to CRISPR technology that makes it easier and safer to make changes to the human genetic code.

But, first, imagine you’re at the zoo, you’re watching a bunch of dolphins swimming, breaking the surface of the water every now and then, suddenly jumping into the air. But as you’re watching this dolphin show, a bee flaps its wings and buzzes right past you, moving rapidly, perching, for a few seconds, from time to time.

Now, I’m going to ask you to do something that’s going to feel crazy at first. Can you imagine a robot that could be both like a dolphin and a bee. Try it. Any luck? Well, researchers at Harvard certainly did, and they’ve come up with a bugbot that has some very special characteristics. The robot is described in the Journal Science Robotics. And you can see a video of it on our website at sciencefriday.com/bugbot.

Joining me to talk more about it is Farrell Halberg. She’s a PhD candidate at Harvard Microbiotics Lab, and one of the researchers on this project. Welcome to the show, Ms. Helberg– Helbling. I’m sorry, it’s Helbling. Boy, did I butcher that name.

FARRELL HELBLING: It’s totally fine. No, I’m happy to be back. Thank you for your interest in our work.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s– let’s talk about these robots. They’re just so tiny, and they’re very cute. Can you describe them to our listeners?

FARRELL HELBLING: Sure. So the original robobee is a small-scale, bio-inspired robotic insect that can flap its wings and fly like an actual bumble– like an actual bumblebee. What we have done with this updated design is we’ve added a few more components that we have custom engineered that allow us to not only fly but also dive into the water, swim, and then break the water’s surface, explode up and out, and then land on the surface again so that we could take off and do further tests.

IRA FLATOW: So they do this all by themselves? They know how to do– jump in, dive, swim, and fly out?

FARRELL HELBLING: So, we still are controlling the vehicle off-board, but its own mechanisms can do all of these things with just the single vehicle. So, we don’t need, you know, a different set of actuators to both fly in air and swim in water. So, it’s just the one flapping mechanism that can do both.

IRA FLATOW: How deep can they– can they go in the water?

FARRELL HELBLING: Ooh, that’s a good question. We actually haven’t tried, I guess. The tank that we have in our lab is about, you know, six to eight inches deep, so–

IRA FLATOW: We’ll wait here. I’ll wait here. Go ahead. Go–go– get one going, and we’ll– no, I’m just joking.

FARRELL HELBLING: I– I don’t know. Yeah, I– it’s not something that we’ve actually tested. I mean, it could probably swim, you know, pretty far down.

IRA FLATOW: And what type of engineering went into this? I mean, I imagine it’s going to have to flap differently in the water than it does in the air.

FARRELL HELBLING: No, it absolutely does. So, a lot of fluid mechanics went into this, and so a lot of physics and thinking about things at different scales. So, air is 1,000 times less dense than water, so we flap at a much higher frequency in the air, around 265 beats per second in the air. And then once we dive into the water, things slow down a little bit, and we start flapping at a much lower rate, around nine times per second.

There was also a lot to do with, you know, different types of materials, because we’re a very lightweight vehicle. So, 15 of these robots actually weigh a penny, to put it in perspective. And so thinking about the different things that need to go on there that will allow us to fly, still take off, you know, different mechanical engineering approaches, how do we– chemical engineering.

We actually do something, you know, that’s really interesting, once we’re in the water, to get out of it. We have this problem, because we are so lightweight, that the surface of the water kind of acts like a brick wall. We’re not allowed to break it ourselves.

So, we had to come up with a new mechanism. And, what we do is we actually take water from the surrounding environment, and then we have a small electrolytic plate in the center, and that takes the water and breaks it into oxygen and hydrogen gas. And, so, with that, we can push our wings gently through the surface of the water, once all that gas is collected inside of a chamber. And then, once we ignite it, it causes an explosion that pushes the vehicle all the way out of the water.

IRA FLATOW: It’s just like– you know, it’s like an underwater missile launch. We see that there’s a gas that has to shoot the rocket out from under– with a submarine underwater too.

FARRELL HELBLING: Yeah, something very similar, like a cannon and a cannonball. Something that, you know, you build up the energy, and then, in a fraction of a second, you release everything to get out.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s the point of making it amphibious, able to be in the water and in the air?

FARRELL HELBLING: It’s– it was an interesting problem that we had from an engineering perspective, which is what started it. The lead author on the paper, and one of the researchers in our lab, was doing a lot of computational fluid dynamics. And they were running these trials using water as a medium. And so he came to us and said, I think that we could get the robobee to swim in water. And so we tried it, and it worked.

And, you know, it just expanded many of the possibilities for this robot. You know, we’re no longer limited to the skies. We can now, you know, survey various lakes, looking at water quality. And because we can do both modes of locomotion, you could think, well, I’m going to fly to one lake, swim around, test out the waters, and then I can, you know, launch myself out of the water, fly to a different one, and then keep going.

IRA FLATOW: Now, last year you were on the show talking about the robobee.


IRA FLATOW: Is this robot kind of like the robobee? What’s different about it?

FARRELL HELBLING: Yeah, no. So, it’s still the same basic design as the previous version. So, this one– the previous one had an additional electroadhesive patch that allowed it to perch on surfaces. So, we’ve taken that off, and we split the two halves of the vehicle apart, and we put this gas collection chamber in the center. And we added the sparker plate, like I said before.

And then there are four buoyant outriggers on the sides, and that allows us to stablize ourselves on the top. Our wing size is slightly smaller, which allows us to flap in air and swim in water. Like, that was a really big part of the work was trying to find the sweet spot of what our wing size needs to be to both operate in air and in water. It’s also about twice as heavy as the old vehicle with all the additional components.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Looks like you guys are obsessed with making robots that look like insects.

FARRELL HELBLING: Yeah, I know, it’s definitely something that we enjoy doing, and we do a lot in our lab.

IRA FLATOW: Why? What make– why are you obsessed with bugs like that?

FARRELL HELBLING: I think that it’s because they’re able to do such amazing things, both as individuals and as a collective. So, something in such a small scale, like a bee, it can sense its surroundings. It can control itself in flight. It can do incredible acrobatic maneuvers at this scale. And, it can not only, you know, work as an individual, but it can also communicate with groups of– with, you know, others within its group.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That was my next question. Are you going to be able to make them swarm together?

FARRELL HELBLING: I mean, that is definitely the goal in the future. I think that many applications, such as, like, search and rescue, or environment exploration, when you want as much information, in parallel, as possible, it would be nice to have a large distributed system of many tiny robots.

From the engineering side, we’re still, you know, really focusing on having one stable platform that can, you know, leave the laboratory environment. So, adding sensors and computational power, as well as, you know, a power source. Once we have that, then yes, you know, getting them to work in a collective would be really exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because, you know, a lot of science fiction is about swarming robots, little bees and things.

FARRELL HELBLING: That is true, yes.

IRA FLATOW: I was just watching The Black Mirror episode, Season Three, where they have all these swarm– have you seen that one?

FARRELL HELBLING: Yeah, I– I– I have seen that one, yes. A friend sent it to me and said, have you seen this episode? And I hadn’t yet. And then I watched it. We are nowhere near that capability. They’re still very much in the laboratory environment. And we don’t have any type of camera or external sensing on them, so people don’t need to be worried about seeing them in their backyard right now.

IRA FLATOW: Right now. Let’s talk about you personally. What was the most fascinating thing about this robot?

FARRELL HELBLING: I was really excited about just the fact that it could operate in water at all. We operate these vehicles at, you know, a very high voltage, and they’re still tethered to an external box. And, so, when my colleague came to me, Kevin, and said, I think that we should put the bee in a tank, I was very worried about what was going to happen, both to the robot and–


FARRELL HELBLING: Yeah, exactly. And to us in the–in the lab, because there’s a lot of electronics everywhere. And just seeing it, you know, swim for the first time, was something that, you know, was really impressive to me. And, so, once we learned that it could, you know, fly and swim, then, you know, taking the time to actually, you know, come up with these new lightweight mechanisms so that it can do it all using one vehicle, in one shot, and getting it to come out of water was, you know, really impressive.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re going to have to learn how to do it wirelessly, right, sooner or later I would think?

FARRELL HELBLING: Yes. Yeah, no, so that is something that we’re thinking about. You know, there are a lot of next steps, specifically for this project, and for the robobee. So, one thing that we’re doing with this is I–I still run everything open loop, so, you know, I see that the robot is in air, so I command it to fly at 265 hertz with external cameras.

And then, you know, it dives into water. I see that it’s in water, so I start running it at a lower frequency. If it could somehow sense, you know, where it is in the environment and, you know, do it autonomously, that would be exciting.


FARRELL HELBLING: And then on a larger scale, absolutely, putting power onboard these lightweight vehicles would, you know, really open up the space of, you know, what we can do with them.

IRA FLATOW: So you would like to scale it up to be bigger?

FARRELL HELBLING: I think that it may be necessary to scale them up to be larger, just so that we can put, you know, all of the additional components that you need on board to, you know, sense and convert power into just, you know, a power source into, you know, the actual actuation signals necessary to drive the vehicle. So, that all adds weight. And, because of that, you know, you need a larger vehicle to be able to carry all of that payload.

IRA FLATOW: It’s kind of fascinating to me, as I’m–I’m speaking of it as a bug, and you’re talking about it as a vehicle.

FARRELL HELBLING: Yeah. Yeah. I guess it’s just a different way of, you know, thinking about it. It’s very– I see it, and I build it, and, you know, in the lab, it’s very much, you know, a mechanical system to me.


FARRELL HELBLING: But, for those who have seen it, you know, in videos, definitely the first response is, oh, what a cute bug.

IRA FLATOW: That’s what I said, yeah.

FARRELL HELBLING: Yeah, no, it is.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Well, good luck with your next experiments with the more stuff you’re going to add onto it, Farrell.

FARRELL HELBLING: Yeah, thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Farrell Helbling is a PhD candidate at the Harvard Microbiots Lab at Harvard University.

We’re going to take a break. And after the break, gene editing with CRISPR just got a little more sophisticated, and a little more safer. A little safer. It’s not more safer. Safer. We’ve got the details after this. Stay with us.

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Sushmita Pathak was Science Friday’s fall 2017 radio intern. She recently graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and majored in electronics and communication engineering in college. She sometimes misses poring over circuit diagrams.

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