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Cracking Flight's Mysteries


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Harvard's Robert Wood and Pratheev Sreetharan

Harvard Professor Robert Wood (left) and graduate student Pratheev Sreetharan are working on miniature flying vehicles that could someday be used to probe environmental hazards, forest fires, and other challenges too perilous for people.

Credit: Justin Ide / Harvard

Harvard University engineers are developing minuscule aerial robots that could one day be used to investigate areas that are too hazardous for humans. The key to this breakthrough is a millionth-scale automobile differential that governs the microrobots' flight. The differential allows for the asymmetric flapping of wings in response to real-world obstacles such as wind gusts.

Harvard graduate student Pratheev S. Sreetharan and engineering professor Robert J. Wood discovered that insect-based aerial microrobots do not have to contain complicated electronic feedback loops to precisely control wing position. They say their Passive Aeromechanical Regulation of Imbalanced Torques (PARITy) drivetrain is more advantageous than an active strategy requiring electronic sensors and computation, which would weigh down the microrobots. "Our design uses 'mechanical intelligence' to determine the correct wing speed and amplitude to balance the other forces affecting the robot," Wood says. "It can slow down or speed up automatically to correct imbalances."

The engineers found that the self-correction supported by the PARITy drivetrain enabled the device to maintain balanced flight even with a significant portion of the wing removed.

From Harvard Gazette
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