In the Harvard Microrobotics Lab, decades of research culminated in a moment of stress as the tiny, groundbreaking RoboBee made its first solo flight.
Graduate student Elizabeth Farrell Helbling, Ph.D. ’19, and postdoctoral fellow Noah T. Jafferis from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, caught the moment on camera.
Helbling, who had worked on the project for six years, counted down.
“Three, two, one, go.”
The bright halogens switched on and the solar-powered RoboBee launched into the air. For a terrifying second, the tiny robot, still without onboard steering and control, careened towards the lights.
Off camera, Helbling exclaimed and cut the power. The RoboBee fell dead out of the air, caught by its Kevlar safety harness.
“That went really close to me,” Helbling said, with a nervous laugh.
“It went up,” Jafferis, who had also worked on the project for about six years, responded excitedly from the high-speed camera monitor where he was recording the test.
And with that, Harvard University’s Robobee became the lightest vehicle ever to achieve sustained untethered flight.
The August 2018 milestone is described in today’s issue of Nature.
“This is a result several decades in the making,” said Robert Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, core faculty member of the Wyss Institute, and principle investigator of the RoboBee project. “Powering flight is something of a Catch-22 as the trade-off between mass and power becomes extremely problematic at small scales where flight is inherently inefficient. It doesn’t help that even the smallest commercially available batteries weigh much more than the robot. We have developed strategies to address this challenge by increasing vehicle efficiency, creating extremely lightweight power circuits, and integrating high-efficiency solar cells.”