Army models insect flight for future 'bugbots'

Swarms of tiny, autonomous robots could infest tomorrow's battlefields

If Army researchers are successful, future warfighters will use small robots that mimic the locomotion of creatures such as lizards and houseflies to scout enemy positions. Modern robots are very successful at what they do, but they are still limited by their size,  lack of autonomy and the types of movements they can do.

Borrowing from Mother Nature’s design sheet is one of the main goals of the Army Research Laboratory’s Micro-Autonomous Systems Technology program. One purpose of the effort is to develop small robots that can work collectively and autonomously in complex urban environments.

It currently takes many soldiers to control a robot and protect the machine’s operator. MAST seeks to flip this equation around from many soldiers to one robot into many robots to one soldier, explained William Nothwang, the lead scientist for the MAST-Microelectonics Center at ARL.

The Army is especially interested in creating small robots that fly like insects. Researchers are currently studying how houseflies fly by modeling the dynamics of their wings, which have tiny structures called haltere that act like pendulums to help them maintain stability when they fly and maneuver.

MAST’s ultimate goal is to deploy swarms of tiny robots to search caves and buildings. Each micro machine would be equipped with a sensor, either a video camera or a chemical agent detector. The robots would communicate with each other, passing data through the swarm and back to a command center as a single unified message.

The big challenge is replicating insect flight in a bug-sized robot. ARL scientists noted that there have been successful attempts at making mechanical insect wings on a larger scale. The goal is to reduce the size of those wings and to develop the sensors needed to measure and control the complex dynamics necessary to keep such a tiny machine in the air, down to something that is less than a centimeter long.

Although the first steps have been taken by researchers, Nothwang cautioned that there is still much work to do before a haltere-based wing system is small enough to keep a military-grade bugbot aloft.

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