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Rob Wood sometimes finds himself following a bee across neighbors' yards. "I guess it's just a fascination," says Wood, 33, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Harvard University. As founder of the Harvard Microrobotics Lab, he is trying to identify the unique factors that make a variety of insects efficient. Then he's figuring out ways to replicate those biological advantages in tiny robots. He and eight graduate students are working to build a menagerie of mechanical creatures, from bees to termites. They're using the locomotion of cockroaches and centipedes as models for gizmos that can navigate any terrain, perhaps to seek out victims in earthquake rubble. They're also studying the flap-and-glide of butterfly wings and the hovering of dragonflies to help them make tiny robots that can fly for miles. Conceivably these could be equipped with cameras or sensors and used for espionage.
Wood hopes his robo-insects will be as simple, sturdy, and powerful as the real critters. A horde of machines programmed with the same single-minded determination as real swarms might be useful in agriculture, construction, medicine, and other fields.
In his most ambitious project, Wood is leading a $10 million National Science Foundation-funded project to make robo- bees. Bionic blossom seekers might be a fix for problems created by Colony Collapse Disorder, an ailment that has wiped out billions of honeybees in the U.S., threatening about $15 billion in almonds, blueberries, and other crops that can't survive without pollination. If the bee population were to disappear, Wood says his robots might be viable substitutes.
The challenges are immense. Once the imitation insects are aloft they need a power supply and navigation system. Early versions of electronic flies, cockroaches, and worms already exist in Wood's lab, and his goal is to have bee prototypes by the time the project's funding dries up in four years. It will take at least another four years to be able to produce thousands of the machines at low cost.
Only when that day arrives will the advantages of each creature become apparent. Termite colonies, for instance, can build enormous nests, some of them more than 300 feet wide. Mechanical termites made by Wood's team might be used to build bridges or dams in situations too dangerous for humans. Worm-bots could deliver drug injections in tight spaces, such as the intestinal tract.
Wood's obsession with robotics dates back to his childhood in Syracuse, N.Y., when he spent hours in the basement with his engineer father building radio-controlled airplanes. "I've got a newborn," says Wood. "He and I are going to spend a lot of time just sitting around looking at flies."
Tiny robots can mimic some of the biological attributes of insects
Fitting all the necessary technology on a fingertip-sized bot
Mechanical swarms might be able to construct a bridge or dam