Scientists have scuccessfully developed an insect-sized seabird type robot which could revolutionize the industry of hybrid robotics. Known as “RoboBee”, the hybrid robot is capable of both swimming and flying. This is first of its type, smaller than the size of a paper clip, the hybrid robot has opened gates development of aqua-aerial type robotic vehicles.

Since, the two designs — Aerial and Aquatic are contradictory to each, researchers faced a lot of problem in combining both the designs such that a robot can fly and swim as well. For a robot to fly in air, it should have large wings to produce lift while swimming in water requires smaller wings with less surface area to reduce drag. After thinking for several hours, an innovative idea struck the mind of engineers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) which solved he problem. Puffins, small species of alcids in the bird genus Fratercula with a brightly coloured beak, also known as the most adept hybrid vehicles in nature, gave the clue. Their wings are designed such that same motion fly in air as well as swims in the water.

Researchers applied the same concept and by making the wings of the robot to fold just before the exact moment when it trikes the surface of the water. However, there was another problem in front of the research team. Since the robot was very small it would not break the surface tension of water, hence wouldn’t have move in the forwards direction.

To solve the problem of surface tension, researchers set the wings of RoboBee at a specific angle and after it hovers the wing, it folds them and crashes unceremoniously into the water in order to sink. Also, to protect the circuitry from short-circuiting beneath the water, researchers have coated the electrical connections with the waterproof glue.

So after all this research and theoretical, computational, experimental studies resulted in a microbot less than the size of a paper clip, that flies, hovers nearly 120 times per second, making its wings almost invisible. Since, water is nearly 1000 times denser than air, wings of RoboBee would snap if hover 120 times per second. Thus, in water the hybrid bot reduces the hovering speed to 9 times per second. Although the bot can switch from flying mode to swimming mode but the reverse is not possible yet since the bot cannot generate enough lift to fly upwards while in water without snapping one of its wings. Researchers working towards making the RoboBee better in future.

The research appeared in a paper at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Germany.

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