Tiny Robot Clings To Leaves With Static Electricity

Flying is an energy-intensive activity. The birds and the bees don’t hover around incessantly like your little sister’s quadcopter. They flit to and fro, perching on branches and leaves while they plan their next move. Sure, a quadcopter can land on the ground, but then it has to spend more energy getting back to altitude. Researchers at Harvard decided to try to develop flying robots that can perch on various surfaces like insects can.

Perching on surfaces happens electrostatically. The team used an electrode patch with a foam mounting to the robot. This allows the patch to make contact with surfaces easily even if the approach is a few degrees off. This is particularly important for a tiny robot that is easily affected by even the slightest air draft. The robots were designed to be as light as possible — just 84mg — as the electrostatic force is not particularly strong.

It’s estimated that perching electrostatically for a robot of this size uses approximately 1000 times less power than during flight. This would be of great use for surveillance robots that could take up a vantage point at altitude without having to continually expend a great deal of energy to stay airborne. The abstract of the research paper notes that this method of perching was successful on wood, glass, and a leaf. It appears testing was done with tethers; it would be interesting to see if this technique would be powerful enough for a robot that carries its own power source. Makes us wonder if we ever ended up with tiny flyers that recharge from power lines?

We’re seeing more tiny flying robots every day now – the IMAV 2016 competition was a great example of the current state of the art.


[via Gizmodo, thanks Itay for the tip!]

15 thoughts on “Tiny Robot Clings To Leaves With Static Electricity

  1. The RoboBee has been the Harvard darling for more than a decade. Nice to see they are learning it new tricks. What they havn’t figured out is how to pilot it as well a power source.

  2. Needs a mini Van der Graaf Generator. :P

    Wouldn’t an onboard electrostatic generator fry the onboard electronics? I can’t see how they could make this completely untethered without immediate failure.

    1. There are many methods for isolating one circuit from another, so no, it won’t fry up and it wouldn’t be a problem. (Take a simply switch, like a IGBT (yes it’s too big, I know), use that for closing the loop for the outward capacitor they had).

  3. It’s a still a long way to robotic pollination, believe me ;)
    Such robots should use sugar water (nectar) as fuel and can maybe use electrostatic forces to draw pollen or mechanical possibility for collecting pollen (some bees store pollen in pockets in their legs, these bees are called pocketmakers). They should have a chemical nose and the ability to distinguish flowers in UV/B/G (instead of R/G/B, as we see) and that’s just for bees. Some butterflies have even more photoreceptors, for example five. And birds (colibris for example) see R, which bees can’t see. Not to forget plants which are pollinated by other animals, even bats and mice are involved in pollination.

  4. Btw: If you are interested in pollination and don’t know the TED talk “The beauty of pollination”, this is my recommendation! A very nice movie is shown in the second half of the talk.

      1. If they would make it like 10 meters tall they could probably make it run off the static electricity in the air, the same electrons that flow up to the sky to later become lightning strikes.

  5. Images and video of that robot fly have been circulating the internet for close to ten years with zero advancement made until now and oh what a huge break through! OMG static electricity makes thing stick together!! WOW.

    1. It’s probably another person who has done the static electricity part and wanted to see if it could hold up something small. Just speculations, but that’s just what sounds most logical.

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