Drones (and microdrones) have become a topic of public interest this year—there was even a Drone Day at SXSW this month—but we’ve yet to hear much about how they’re manufactured. An article in Scientific American this month describes how a group of Harvard Scientists are pioneering a method of building robotic bees (henceforth referred to as RoboBees or Monobees), using a technique derived from pop-up books and origami.
The RoboBee project began in 2009, when a group of researchers set out to build a robotic bee colony. They were acting primarily in response to Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious phenomenon that’s causing millions of bees and hives to suddenly disappear. The thinking went that building a robotic colony could help scientists to understand what was going wrong. Designing the necessary hardware to fit onto the bee’s nickel-sized body has proved a huge challenge. The RoboBees have a "nervous system" of microelectronics, including sensors, that act as the bees’ eyes and antennae, as well as a body with superlight airfoil wings and a pollination appendage. The current RoboBee prototype still flies attached to a power supply wire, since a battery would weigh them down.
What’s really fascinating, though, is the method the team has derived to pack all of that hardware onto the tiny faux-insect body. Rather than building each robot up individually under a microscope, the team is "printing" the delicate bee bodies on sheets of carbon fiber, ceramic, and plastic. This way, the electronic components are integrated into the structural body of the bee, saving on weight and complexity. Then, like a kid’s pop-up book, specific pieces fold out to create a three dimensional body. "This takes what is a craft, an artisanal process, and transforms it for automated mass production," says Pratheev Sreetharan, the doc student who co-developed the mono-body technique. "Until recently, the manual assembly process was the state of the art in this field."
The team’s method probably won’t take long to scale up, since the technique they’re using to layer the sheets of bees is similar to that used to print circuit boards. The manufacturing infrastructure needed to build thousands of the bees is already fairly ubiquitous. What will be interesting is seeing how such a technology is used—whether for warfare or for search and rescue. One remaining hurdle is the weight of the power source, which keeps it tethered to a heavy battery. Perhaps a graphene supercapacitor could do the trick?