Harvard’s Microrobotic Lab Sinks RoboBees and Claims it was on Purpose

What do you call tiny flying robots that undoubtedly emit a buzzing noise as they pass by? Mosquitoes are universally hated, as are wasps, so the logical name is RoboBees.

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has been cooking up these extremely impressive tiny robots in their Microrobotics lab. The swarms use piezoelectric actuators to produce the mechanical force to drive the wings, which can be independently controlled.This isn’t the first time we’ve looked in on the Robobees, but the most recent news revealed the ability to swim, and dive (term used generously) into water.

This may not sound like much, but previously the robots lacked the ability to break the surface tension of water. To sink, the wings need a coating of surfactant. Once submerged, the bots lack the ability to transition back from water to air. But we won’t be surprised to see that ability added as a feature while the scope of the project continues to creep. So yes, you can jump into water to escape bees but not to escape Robobees.

Diving isn’t the only wonder to behold. The ‘head’ of the RoboBee is utterly fascinating. It’s constructed by folding the PCB into a pyramid like structure, 4 sides of the head include a photo-transistor covered by a diffused lens which the bot uses for self positioning by sensing changes between the bright light of the sky and absence thereof below the horizon. This concept is taken directly from biological self-righting systems found on the head of most insects, however Harvard’s version has one more sensor than the stock 3 seen on insects. Take that, nature!

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Hacking Eating Tracking

There’s a great hackathon going on this weekend in the Boston area. Hacking Eating Tracking challenges participants to develop technology that will help guide personal behavior toward a healthier lifestyle.

The event in hosted in Cambridge, MA by Harvard University. It isn’t focused on giving you a diet that you need to follow. It looks instead at how some more abstract behavior changes will cause your body to do this for you. One really quick example is to change the hand in which you hold your fork, or swap out the fork for a different utensil. Going “lefty” while you eat can change the cadence of your consumption and my impact how many calories you consume before feeling full. This is a really fun type of hacking to delve into!

Hackaday is one of the Hackathon sponsors and [Sophi] is headed out to participate in the weekend of building. She’s planning to work with a Pixy Camera which can measure depth data and can separate colors. Of course decisions on the build direction won’t be made until she and her teammates put their heads together, but she did have a few preliminary ideas. Several of these cameras might be used in a supermarket to gather data on where customers tend to congregate and how aisle flow and stock choices might be able to change behavior.

If you’re not in the area you should still be able to follow along as the event helps to improve people’s lives through behavior. The hackathon will be using the Hackaday.io Hackathon framework. Teams will register and update their projects throughout the weekend. We’re looking forward to seeing what is built using the crate of LightBlue Bean boards we sent along from the Hackaday Store.

Demonstrating Science at Harvard University

What if there was a job where you built, serviced, and prepared science demonstrations? This means showing off everything from principles of physics, to electronic theory, to chemistry and biology. Would you grab onto that job with both hands and never let go? That was my reaction when I met [Dan Rosenberg] who is a Science Lecture Demonstrator at Harvard University. He gave me a tour of the Science Center, as well as a behind the scenes look at some of the apparatus he works with and has built.

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This Message will Self Destruct… as You Read It?

A group of Harvard chemists have come up with a novel use for fire. Through experimentation, they have been able to build what they call an InfoFuse. As the name implies, it’s essentially a burning fuse that can “transmit” information.

The fuse is made from flash paper, which is paper made from nitrocellulose. Flash paper burns at a relatively constant speed and leaves no smoke or ash, making it ideal for this type of project. The chemists developed a method of conveying information by changing the color of the flame on the paper. You might remember from high school chemistry class that you can change the color of fire by burning different metal salts. For example, burning copper can result in a blue flame. This is the key to the system.

The researchers dotted the flash paper with small bits of metal salts. As the flame reaches these spots, it briefly changes colors. They had to invent an algorithm to convert different color patterns to letters and numbers. It’s sort of like an ASCII table for fire. Their system uses only three colors. The three colors represent eight possible combinations of color at any given time. Just two quick pulses allow the researchers to convey all 26 letters of the English alphabet as well as ten digits and four symbols. In one test, the researchers were able to transmit a 20 character message in less than 4 seconds.

[Ben Krasnow] found the Harvard project and just had to try it out for himself. Rather than use colors to convey information, he took a more simple approach. He started with a basic strip of flash paper, but left large tabs periodically along its length. As the paper burns from end to end, it periodically hits one of these tabs and the flame gets bigger momentarily.

[Ben] uses an optical sensor and an oscilloscope to detect the quantity of light. The scope clearly shows the timing of each pulse of light, making it possible to very slowly convey information via fire. Ben goes further to speculate that it might be possible to build a “fire computer” using a similar method. Perhaps using multiple strips of paper, one can do some basic computational functions and represent the result in fire pulses. He’s looking for ideas, so if you have any be sure to send them his way! Also, be sure to check out Ben’s demonstration video below. Continue reading “This Message will Self Destruct… as You Read It?”

$14 swarm robot, kilobot, is extremely cool

Reader, [Michael Rubenstein], sent in a project he’s been working on. Kilobot, as stated in the paper(pdf), overcomes the big problems with real world swarm robotics simulations; cost, experiment setup time, and maintenance. The robot can be communicated with wirelessly, charged in bulk, and mass programmed in under a minute. Typically, robots used for swarm research cost over a $100, so large scale experiments are left to software simulation. These, however, rarely include the real world physics, sensor error, and other modifying factors that only arise in a physical robot.  Impressively enough, the kilobot comes in far under a hundred and still has many of the features of its costlier brothers. It can sense other robots, report its status, and has full differential steer (achieved, surprisingly, through bristle locomotion). There are a few cool videos of the robot in operation on the project site that are definitely worth a look.