Harvard's insect-like RoboBee achieves major solo flight milestone

The Harvard Microrobotics Lab has announced the latest version of its insect-like RoboBee 'X-Wing' is officially the lightest vehicle to achieve sustained untethered flight. The solo flight milestone was recorded as a slow-motion video in which viewers see the tiny robot's wings flap rapidly, just like an ordinary insect. The achievement was made possible via a number of improvements made to the RoboBee.

RoboBee X-Wing is described as lighter than a paper clip at 259 milligrams. Due to that low weight, it takes only 290 milligrams of lift to make the insect-inspired robot rise. The RoboBee's energy requirement sits at 115 milliwatts, which is described as less than the power required to illuminate a single bulb on a strand of Christmas lights.

The milestone sustained flight was achieved with the latest version of RoboBee, which was modified from the previous version to include a second pair of wings. Among other things, these new wings increased the RoboBee's efficiency and provided additional lift without increasing the amount of energy required to power it.

Because the improvements provided more lift without a similar increase in power requirements, the researchers working on the project were able to eliminate the power cord that has historically (for the last six years) kept the tiny robot tethered to a power source. In its place are tiny solar panels and an electronics panel.

According to the Harvard lab, these solar panels weigh 10mg each, generating a mere 0.76mw of power in full sunlight. However, the robot requires light intensity equal to three Earth suns at this time, meaning outdoor flight isn't yet possible — the lab used halogen bulbs as a substitute. The team plans to continue working on RoboBee with the expectation of eventually making outdoor flight possible.