Architecture and Hardware

Microrobots Are the “bee’s Knees” For Harvard Professor

Once power and control issues are resolved and the RoboBees can fly untethered with a degree of certainty, Robert J. Wood foresees their use in search-and-rescue applications.

To the age-old debate of "nature vs. nurture" in determining how a person’s life progresses, in the case of Robert J. Wood, one might also add timing, and snow.

Wood, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences in Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a founding core faculty member of the university’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, is in the forefront – and at the intersection – of research into bio-inspired robotics and micro-robotics. Recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for his work in microrobotics in 2010 and the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award in 2012, Wood also was recently honored as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

Wood deflects accolades in modestly describing a path that began in the snowbelt town of Syracuse, NY. As to incubating his childhood interest in how things got built and functioned, he says, "Being stuck indoors for eight months of the year has something to do with it." He also credits his father, who worked as an engineer at medical device manufacturer Welch Allyn, with helping to foster his interest in tinkering.

"Legos are still my favorite toy and I liked building model airplanes, which ironically all crashed," he says with a chuckle. "Those types of things are stereotypical proto-engineer activities."

Wood stuck close to home for his undergraduate work at Syracuse University, but opted to head to sunnier climes for graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley.

"It was the right place at the right time," Wood says. "The dot-com bubble had yet to burst. Everybody wanted to go to a startup and nobody wanted to go to grad school, so I got into grad school at the right time. I was trained as an electrical engineer, but it was clear I wanted something broader, and robotics is sort of a natural fit for that; it’s multi-disciplinary. And a topic called the Micromechanical Flying Insect Project had just started shortly before I arrived, sort of the predecessor to a lot of things we work on here. That just immediately got my imagination running."

Wood’s imagination has been in sync with that of many others, both inside and outside the laboratories of roboticists. The Harvard Microrobotics Lab, which he founded, has gained renown for its work on scale-sized robotic bees. Given recent headlines about the demise of many of the world’s honeybees, more than one story has mentioned that one day, Wood’s RoboBees may be able to perform the task of pollination. However, Wood cautions, discovering the cause or causes of swarm die-off and finding a natural fix should be of much higher priority, adding that any practical application of the lab’s work is 20 to 30 years away.

Instead, he says, the lab’s researchers might better be followed for their basic research in numerous disciplines that may bear fruit, so to speak, not only in tiny flying robots but also in areas such as soft medical devices and microdevices; in other words, the most useful cross-pollination is likely to be observed in how Wood’s teams synthesize advances in power source and sensor research in complementary, or even serendipitous, projects elsewhere.

At the RoboBee project’s beginnings, he says, there was absolutely no off-the-shelf technology available. For example, he says, the team adapted the foundational lamination and folding methods inspired by pop-up books for the coin-sized bees’ fabrication technique, and is now working with a colleague to further research the utility of printed micro-batteries as part of a multi-faceted approach to resolving power issues.

"Another thing we’re pushing hard now is onboard sensing," Wood says. "Again, it’s a multi-faceted approach, but not necessarily because we don’t know if one approach is going to work well. We’re looking at more basic questions on what sensor information you need in these. There are really interesting trade-offs between how rich a set of sensor information you have, which likely will cause you to need more computational power and electrical power, versus scaling that back, alleviating some of the power and weight constraints, but then making the control challenges harder because you have less perception on board."

In the long term, once Wood and his colleagues solve power and control issues to allow the bees to fly untethered with a degree of certainty, he sees a likely use for them in search-and-rescue missions, or perhaps as vehicles for assessing damages after a natural disaster.

Wood says the concept of humans taking inspiration from biology, and having the time and resources to create intelligent simulations from scratch, is paying dividends in inspiring the next generation of scientists.

"Now we take our show on the road and go to local schools and science festivals and events," he says. "It’s clear young kids can kind of understand, at least at the surface, what we’re doing and get excited about it, and we use that to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education.

"But the same was true for me going into graduate school. These things are right on the fringe and almost science fiction, but they’re real."

Gregory Goth is an Oakville, CT-based writer who specializes in science and technology.

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