Ask a child to design a robot, and they’ll produce a drawing that looks a little like you or I—the parts may be gray and boxy, but it will have two arms, two legs, and a head (probably with an antenna coming out of the top). Starting from the beginning of robotics, the human form has seemed like an excellent starting point. One of the best places to draw inspiration for robotic design, however, is the kingdom of insects, arachnids, snails, and slugs.
In this roundtable edition, we watched the Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation” and asked our Robohub team members: with many institutions focused on developing aerial drone technology, and in light of the pressing reality of climate change and bee colony collapse, do we see robotic bees in our future? Would swarms of artificial insects even be desirable?
Developed by a team at the University of Toronto, mROBerTO (milli-ROBot TORonto) is designed for swarm-robotics researchers who might wish to test their collective-behavior algorithms with real physical robots. With just a 16 mm x 16 mm footprint, mROBerTO can be used in a multitude of other miniature robot projects too—its modular design allowing for easy addition or removal of components.
Last week Raffaello D’Andrea, professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and founder of Verity Studios, demonstrated a whole series of novel flying machines live on stage at TED2016: From a novel Tail-Sitter (a small, fixed-wing aircraft that can optimally recover a stable flight position after a disturbance and smoothly transition from hover into forward flight and back), to the “Monospinner” (the world’s mechanically simplest flying machine, with only a single moving part), to the “Omnicopter” (the world’s first flying machine that can move into any direction independent of its orientation and its rotation), to a novel fully redundant quadrocopter (the world’s first, consisting of two separate two-propeller flying machines), to a synthetic swarm (33 flying machines swarming above the audience).
In this episode, Audrow Nash speaks with Brad Nelson, Professor at ETH Zurich, about his research regarding micro and nano robotics. They discuss many of Nelson’s projects: retinal and heart surgery, crystal harvesting, and robots with simulated flagella for mobility.
Imagine a swarm of microscopic robots that we inject into the vascular system: the swarm swims to the source of the problem, then either delivers therapeutics or undertakes microsurgery directly. That was how I opened a short invited talk at the Royal Society of Medicine, at a meeting themed The Future of Robotics in Surgery.
An international leader in the field of robotics and automation, Toshio Fukuda is best known for his pioneering work on micro robotics systems — including microsensors and micro actuators — and his medical intravascular microsurgery simulator has found commercial use. We caught up with Prof. Fukuda following the 2013 IROS conference in Tokyo, which Fukuda co-founded in 1988, to ask him about his groundbreaking work and the role of robotics in medicine.
The DelFly Explorer is the first flapping wing Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) that is able to fly with complete autonomy in unknown environments. Weighing just 20 grams and with a wingspan of 28cm, it is equipped with an onboard stereo vision system. The DelFly Explorer can perform an autonomous take-off, keep its height, and avoid obstacles for as long as its battery lasts (~9 minutes). All sensing and processing is performed on board, so no human or offboard computer is in the loop.
Unlike larger robots, microrobots for applications in the body are too small to carry batteries and motors. To address this challenge, we power and control robots made of magnetic materials using external magnetic fields. Developed at ETH Zurich’s Multi-Scale Robotics Lab (MSRL), the OctoMag is a magnetic manipulation system that uses electromagnetic coils to wirelessly guide microrobots for ophthalmic surgery.
Flies have small brains that would not be able to process high-resolution images such as those that we see with our own eyes. Instead, they’ve perfected the use of compound eyes, composed of a dense mosaic of tiny eye-like structures called ommatidia. Each ommatidium consists of a microlense that focuses light from a specific section of the insect’s field of view onto an independent set of photoreceptors. Think of it as having many low-resolution cameras pointing in different directions. The result is a vision system with low spatial resolution (i.e. it can’t see details), but a wide field of view (i.e. it can see all around). By comparing information across the different ommatidia, flies can extract temporal information useful for detecting motion. This motion information, also called optic flow, is what allows flies to navigate, take-off, land and avoid obstacles while using very little processing power.
Researchers from the Wyss Institute and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard have developed a millimeter-scaled insect robot that can autonomously control its flight. Their findings were published in the prestigious journal Science. The amazing high-speed video below shows the robot taking off, hovering in place and steering left and right on demand. Controlling such small flyers has been impossible so far because of challenges in fabricating tiny actuated systems, and the chaotic movement of small flapping-wing robots. You’ve seen a fly move around your living room, doesn’t seem easy to control right?