Robot bees fly and swim, soon they'll have laser eyes

Robot insects may someday be used in agriculture and disaster relief situations. Photo credit: Microrobotics Lab, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

How do you teach robotic insects to see? By equipping them with tiny laser-powered sensors that act as eyes, enabling the miniature machines to sense the size, shape and distance of approaching objects.

“Essentially, it’s the same technology that automakers are using to ensure that driverless cars don’t crash into things,” said Karthik Dantu, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “Only we need to shrink that technology so it works on robot bees that are no bigger than a penny.”

Dantu is the principal investigator on the UB-led research project, funded by a $1.1 million National Science Foundation grant, which includes researchers from Harvard University and the University of Florida.

Researchers have shown that robot bees are capable of tethered flight and moving while submerged in water. One of their limitations, however, is a lack of depth perception.

This is problematic if you want the bee to avoid flying into a wall or have it land in a flower, said Dantu, who worked on the RoboBee project as a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard before joining UB in 2013.

The UB team will address the limitation by outfitting the robot bee with remote sensing technology called lidar, the same laser-based sensor system that is making driverless cars possible.

The technology the team develops likely won’t be limited to robot insects. The sensors could be used, among other things, in wearable technology; endoscopic tools; and smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices.