Tiny robots to become “smart like insects”

RoboBee is a tiny robot. Another is the Harvard Ambulatory Microrobot, one robot a four-legged machine just 17 millimeters long and weighing less than 3 grams. It can scamper at a speed of .44 meters-per-second. And it’s developed more. Engineers have had success building tiny, insect-like robots, programming them to behave autonomously like real insects.

Now, a group of Cornell engineers has been experimenting with a new type of programming that mimics the way an insect's brain works. Unlike traditional chips that process combinations of 0s and 1s as binary code, neuromorphic chips process spikes of electrical current that fire in complex combinations, similar to how neurons fire inside a brain. 


A virtual simulator was created by Taylor Clawson, a doctoral student in Ferrari's lab. The physics-based simulator models the RoboBee and the instantaneous aerodynamic forces it faces during each wing stroke. Ferrari said her lab plans to help outfit RoboBee with new micro devices such as a camera, expanded antennae for tactile feedback, contact sensors on the robot's feet and airflow sensors that look like tiny hairs. Ferrari is continuing the work using a four-year, $1 million grant from the Office of Naval Research. Such tiny robots can have many applications. However, there is a tricky fact too: soon people will wonder if that fly on the wall is actually a fly. Or a robot, maybe ?