Flying robots to revolutionise environmental monitoring

A research team from the University of Bristol has developed a new drive system for flapping wing autonomous flying robots, which can be utilised for environmental monitoring.

How does this new technology compare to the past?

Up until now, typical micro flying robots have used motors, gears, and other complex transmission systems to achieve the up-and-down motion of the wings. This has added complexity, weight, and undesired dynamic impacts.

This new advance, published today in the journal Science Robotics, utilises a new method of electromechanical zipping that does away with the need for conventional motors and gears. Thus, this could pave the way for smaller, lighter, and more effective micro flying robots for environmental monitoring, search and rescue, and deployment in hazardous environments.

How did scientists create the insect sized flying robots?

Scientists took their primary inspiration from bees and other flying insects and have successfully demonstrated a direct-drive artificial muscle system, called the Liquid-amplified Zipping Actuator (LAZA), that achieves wing motion using no rotating parts or gears.

Researchers from Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, led by Professor of Robotics Jonathan Rossiter, noted that the LAZA system greatly simplifies the flapping mechanism, enabling future miniaturisation of flapping robots down to the size of insects.

Scientists have managed to demonstrate how a pair of LAZA-powered flapping wings can provide more power compared with insect muscle of the same weight, enough to fly a robot across a room at 18 body lengths per second.

Furthermore, researchers also determined how the LAZA can deliver consistent flapping over more than one million cycles, which important for making flapping robots that can undertake long-haul flights.

How will this technology be employed in the future?

The team expect the LAZA to be adopted as a fundamental building block for a range of autonomous insect-like flying robots.

“With the LAZA, we apply electrostatic forces directly on the wing, rather than through a complex, inefficient transmission system. This leads to better performance, simpler design, and will unlock a new class of low-cost, lightweight flapping micro-air vehicles for future applications, like autonomous inspection of off-shore wind turbines,” commented Dr Tim Helps, lead author and developer of the LAZA system.

“Making smaller and better performing flapping wing micro robots is a huge challenge. LAZA is an important step toward autonomous flying robots that could be as small as insects and perform environmentally critical tasks such as plant pollination and exciting emerging roles such as finding people in collapsed buildings,” concluded Professor Rossiter.

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