Of Flybots And Bug Eyes: Insects Inspire Inventors

May 2, 2013
Originally published on May 2, 2013 5:49 pm

A smartphone can tell you where to get a cup of coffee, but it can't go get the coffee for you. Engineers would like to build little machines that can do stuff. They would be useful for a lot more than coffee, if we could figure out how to make them work.

But the rules of mechanics change at small scales. Friction becomes dominant; turbulence can upend a small airplane.

"Gears and rotors and belts and pistons and all of the things that work really well at large scales, they just don't work at small scales," says Michael Dickinson, a zoologist at the University of Washington. One solution: insects.

Dickinson, who studies flies, says that insects are the ultimate micromachines: They've got acute sensors, superfast reflexes and lots of little moving parts. "Insects just excel at small," he says. "They really do small well."

This week, two groups of engineers have unveiled two new machines that rip off insects. The first, published in the journal Nature, is a miniature camera. It looks just like a bug's compound eye, and works like one too. John Rogers, an engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed the dime-sized camera by staring deep into the eyes of a bark beetle.

"It's just this amazing rainbow of colors and this amazing hemispherical shape in what is otherwise kind of an ugly beetle insect," he says. "And it only gets more interesting when you start to think about the details."

An insect's compound eye sees really well because each of its light-sensitive cells has its own dedicated lens. That means insect eyes have a huge field of view, are highly sensitive to motion, and keep everything in focus automatically. Copying that design lets Rogers' camera do things no other camera can, like view things over very wide angles without distortion. Rogers thinks his new camera could be used in hard-to-reach places. It could look inside the human body, for example, or be used for surveillance.

The second piece of insect imitation is published in the journal Science. Robert Wood at Harvard University has spent years trying to make miniature flying robots that could go do stuff in the world. Wood's flying robot copies real flies.

"If you just look at the aerial agility that flies have, it's quite astounding," Wood says. So it makes sense to try to replicate it.

The team built their robot by cutting flat pieces of different materials and sticking them together. Then they got the pieces to fold up into a robot. It took a while to get the little flybot working, Wood says.

"We would inevitably fly them and crash them, and fly them and crash them, and they would break," he says. Now the flies are able to stay aloft as long as 10 minutes or so (although they're still tethered by a cable for power and control).

Super-eyed fly robots could be used for all sorts of things. Individually, they might search through rubble of a collapsed building. A swarm of them might be used to help pollinate crops. With onboard batteries and microprocessors, they could network together to extend their reach and increase their intelligence.

Both projects still have a ways to go before they can really venture out on their own. In the meantime, zoologist Dickinson says that insects will continue to inspire engineers. And they should.

"It's been the age of insects for about 400 million years," Dickinson says. "So I think it's very appropriate to spend some of our energy trying to figure out how they work and sort of see the world from their perspective."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Through most of human history, engineers have been building big - think pyramids, skyscrapers, rockets. But now, in the electronic age, the challenge is building small. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, some engineers are taking inspiration from some of Earth's smallest inhabitants.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It seems like my smartphone can do anything, but it can't. Pick up that pen and hand it to me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't know what that means. If you like, I can search the Web.

BRUMFIEL: Thanks, but no. Engineers would like to build little gadgets to do stuff in the real world. They'd be useful for a lot more than just picking up pens, but right now we don't know how to make them.

MICHAEL DICKINSON: Gears and rotors and belts and pistons and all the things that, you know, work really well at large scales, they just don't work at small scales.

BRUMFIEL: Michael Dickinson is not an engineer. He's a zoologist at the University of Washington. Dickinson's crazy about flies. His email is "flyman." He'll tell you insects are the ultimate micromachines. They've got acute sensors, superfast reflexes and lots of little moving parts.

DICKINSON: Insects just excel at small. They really do small well.

BRUMFIEL: This week, two groups of engineers have unveiled new machines that rip off insects. The first, published in the journal Nature, is a miniature camera. It looks just like a bug's compound eye, and works like one, too. John Rogers, an engineer at the University of Illinois, developed the dime-sized camera by staring deep into the eyes of a bark beetle.

JOHN ROGERS: It's just this amazing rainbow of colors and this amazing hemispherical shape in what is otherwise kind of an ugly beetle insect. And it only gets more interesting when you start to think about the details.

BRUMFIEL: An insect's compound eye sees really well because each of its light-sensitive cells has its own dedicated lens. Insects have a huge field of view. They are highly sensitive to motion, and they keep everything in focus automatically. Copying that design lets Rogers' camera do things that no other camera can.

ROGERS: So you place an object very close to a camera with this design or, you know, an insect's very close to an object, the object is in crisp focus and as it moves away, it stays in focus.

BRUMFIEL: Rogers thinks his new camera could be used in hard-to-reach places - looking inside the human body, for example, or for surveillance. The second piece of insect imitation is published today in Science magazine. Robert Wood, an engineer at Harvard University, has spent more than a decade trying to make miniature robots that can fly. Individually, they might search through rubble of a collapsed building; swarms of them could help pollinate crops.

Kevin Ma is one of Wood's graduate students. He says the team has drawn inspiration from insects' tiny flapping wings.

KEVIN MA: Flapping wings seem to be a viable solution, seeing as there are trillions of insects taunting us with their abilities.

BRUMFIEL: The team built their robot by layering different materials together and folding it up.

MA: By hand, with tweezers under a microscope.

BRUMFIEL: The result, a robotic fly. It looks like a toothpick with little fairy wings. They don't have room for a battery or a computer yet, so it flies while attached to a little power cable. For a while anyway.

MA: Their flight muscles break, quite fragile flight muscles and also, the shoulder hinge of the wings will fatigue and fail after about 10 minutes.

BRUMFIEL: It'll be a while before I can send the flybots out with their powerful bug eyes to grab my pen. In the meantime, zoologist Dickinson says that insects will continue to inspire engineers. And they should.

DICKINSON: It's been the age of insects for about 400 million years, so I think it's, you know, it's very appropriate to spend some of our energy trying to figure out how they work and sort of see the world from their perspective.

BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

BLOCK: And at NPR.org, you can see a video of that fly robot Geoff Brumfiel was talking about and something that's really cool - I'm looking at it now. It's a real fly in slow motion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.