That is something you probably have not seen coming, but here we want to give you the fresher news in technology, and so we have to update you about a rising trend: the rise of the insect robotic drones, or micro drones.
A drone is already an insect, it’s of course the male honey bee. The term has been popularized recently to describe the quad-copters devices and other similar unmanned planes. Now there are really drone drones, e.g. insect robots, often radio-controlled.
With the rise of miniaturized solar batteries or ultra-low power processors, insect robots become a reality.
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Mini-drones technologies have been made possible because of the recent pioneering works of several electrical engineers, zoologists, neurobiologists, cyberneticians from Cambridge, or Harvard University.
People such as Richard Guiler, Tom Vaneck, Jayant Ratti, or Rob Wood have pioneered the mini-drones technologies.
A single micro-drone may have limited abilities but dozens and dozens of collaborating and cooperating micro-drones could accomplish real complex tasks.
An orchestration system for micro-drones could turn them into a real swarm, with tasks streamed between different classes of drones and work being balanced just as in a real insect swarm.
Of course, such an orchestration system could find its root in hyper-automation and artificial intelligence. Recall that there are many artificial intelligence algorithms inspired by nature.
RoboBees are special types of insect drones that have been built in a Harvard robotics laboratory. Robobees are designed after flies (not after bees)
They are capable of partially untethered flight.
The wingspan of robobees is typically 3 cm, and they are therefore actually the tiniest robotic insect drone able to fly.
Robobees have been proposed for mass production, as a possible replacement for dying bees and thus to help pollination in North America and Europe.
This has led to many criticisms as to the non-sustainability of such insect drones and that relying on them for complex and vital operations such as pollination could seriously jeopardize food production.
The CCD – Colony Collapse Disorder Syndrome, which kills honey bees, is now affecting a great part of Europe and the USA. Some countries have mortality rates beyond 50% and even close to 100% in some cases.
This represents a great threat to the ability to provide food for the world’s population. Artificial pollination (using helicopters etc) may be technically difficult and economically not viable.
Using insect robots for artificial pollination is indeed a complex challenge but after all, who else than robot-bees could achieve that task? Of course, this raises debate over the right to introduce these robotic technologies in such a critical and vital natural process.
There are many ‘magic’ behind such man-manufactured insects.
Insect drones cannot use a lot of power, therefore they mainly rely on micro solar cells as well as the energy scavengers techniques.
‘Recent’ technological advances in additive manufacturing, piezoelectric actuators, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and low-power sensors are some of the reasons for that ‘magic’.
They also need ultra-low-power processors such as the ones equipping several classes of IoT devices. The GAP8 processors are a perfect example of what is needed for insect drones.
Insect drones also use a lot of A.I. especially Convolutional Neural Networks, which allow them to navigate and distinguish shapes and objects for instance.
Insect drones can also use a combination of radar and neural networks.
Stiquito is a hexapod insectoid robot, a very basic and cheap insect robot, usually used for teaching introductory courses to robotics in universities or special schools.
The muscles of the robot are made of nitinol, which gives it the ability to contract or expand ‘muscles’ and move forward or backward.
The robot has truly ‘analogue’ muscles which makes it quite interesting in terms of research. It was developed primarily in the 90s as a platform for testing some research on Analogue logic by Jonathan Mills.
The DragonflEye project has been developed by R&D lab Draper which is using innovative technologies such as optoelectronics or genetic engineering.
Instead of using electrodes to activate the muscles of the artificial insect, the DragonflEye is using optrodes (an optical sensor device coupled to a chemical system) in order to activate a special type of “commander” neuron using light pulses.
This system which is named optogenetic stimulation is the base of the artificial nervous system of the microrobot.
DragonflEye devices are also thought of as a possible replacement for bees, to achieve pollination.
Mostly designed and produced by Ron Fearing’s Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, the latest evolution of the RoAch robot is extremely bluffing.
RoACH robots are very similar to real roach insects: they share with them claws, wings, or tails. They also have an exoskeleton, an ultra-protective shell. The RoACH robot – same as the insect – rolls sideways.
Here the imitation of the real roach insect seems to have inspired the engineers to create an artificial robot modeling its biological counterpart.
RoboFly has been developed by the University of Washington. It is a very realistic robotic version of a fly and can actually fully fly entirely untethered on land or water surfaces.
It is equipped with a small photoelectric panel which gives it all the energy it needs to fly. Anyway, the drone doesn’t get the energy from the light of the sun but from a laser fired from the ground.
RoboFly is only a bit larger than an actual fly with a weight of around 190 mg. So far this is the lightest aerial robot that can fly without being connected to a cable.
This is a typical sci-fi concept: the robotic bug, equipped with micro video-cameras and able to enter even the most heavily surveyed facilities, remaining unsuspected and largely unnoticed while taking pictures of secrets and eventually performing some sabotage acts.
As surprising as it may appear such spy micro-drones aren’t that new. The CIA is known to have built one in the 70s, the ‘insectothopter” and it has been only recently declassified.
The “insectothopter” was using a tiny gas-pumping engine and was navigating with a laser system. It was able to fly for only 60 seconds. But that amount of time was enough to have the dragonfly reach a target some 200 meters away.
Of course, the CIA was using as well a lot of real animal agents to conduct espionage missions. (pigeons, dolphins, dogs)
Being used as spy agents is probably the only real application of insect robots drone.
As such, they can really be extremely hard to detect and distinguish (go find a robotic mosquito among thousands of such insects ). As war weapons, they could carry infectious diseases to the enemy territory.
The Army has a growing interest in insect robots.
The U.S. agency DARPA, e.g. the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded in 2019 two multi-millions dollars contracts to Honeywell International Inc. Automation and Control Solutions (ACS) division related to the Short-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms (SHRIMP) project.
The main reason for that interest is to build robots that are able to go where traditionally sized robots couldn’t go. Indeed, some situations prevent a ‘standard sized’ robot from entering some territory for a recognition mission or infantry situation awareness for instance.
Some territory may be under extreme surveillance by sophisticated radars that could detect any robot, ground, or aerial of a weight of one kilogram for instance, or even less.
Or some facilities could be entered only via extremely tiny canalizations of the size of a few centimeters.
Darpa is also known to have shown interest in tiny robotic insects as a way to improve the efficiency of the Microscale Biomimetic Robust Artificial Intelligence Networks that they are developing- aka the Micro-Brain project.
The research for building robots by using insects as a model isn’t exactly new. Insects are indeed perfect robots already. Insects do not feel any emotion, therefore they obey strictly “logical” and algorithmic mechanisms.
Their tiny body structure is already a mechanical design created by nature while their nervous system looks very close to the design of an electronic board.
For instance here is the complete mapping of an adult fly. Being able to reproduce it with computers would mean creating an artificial synthetic fly “intelligence”.
Insect robotic drones are rising, and they may become a large market in the next decades. Among their applications: surveillance, auxiliary help for insects having natural roles like bees or spy systems.
So far they may look like mere toys demonstrating the actual power of micro technologies and artificial intelligence and the field of their applications will certainly remain very limited, but they offer a very good showcase of what Humans can achieve as of 2020.
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