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Tiny Flying Robots To Aid War & Exploration

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 657 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... TINY FLYING ROBOTS IN WORKS TO AID WAR, EXPLORATION
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 27, 2002
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      By Andrew Bridges
      Associated Press / Sacramento Bee
      Saturday, July 27, 2002


      BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) - A team of researchers at the University of
      California, Berkeley, hopes its invention will create a little buzz and a
      lot of flap.

      Engineers, biologists and others have spent four years developing a tiny
      robot called the Micromechanical Flying Insect that - they hope - will one
      day fly like a fly.

      The project is among a handful aiming to engineer devices that can soar,
      dart and hover on gossamer wings. The paths are different but the goal is
      the same: to churn out tiny, nimble devices that can spy on enemy troops,
      explore the surface of Mars or safely monitor dangerous chemical spills.

      The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding much of
      the work.

      In recent years, scientists at Berkeley and elsewhere have made huge strides
      in understanding the unsteady aerodynamics that allow insects and the
      smallest of birds to fly. The challenge is to apply that knowledge to the
      design of devices that - at least at Berkeley - mimic the size, weight,
      power and, above all, aerodynamic elegance of a fly.

      "What we're targeting is the blowfly, how it specs out," said Tim Sands, a
      professor of materials science and engineering.

      Lest anyone scoff, Sands and his colleagues point out that a fly can lift
      its own weight, turn more quickly than any fighter jet, zip about even on
      torn wings and cap it all off by landing on the ceiling.

      "Insects," said Berkeley's Ron Fearing, "have tremendous maneuverability."

      In a cluttered campus lab, the professor of electrical engineering and
      computer sciences uses tweezers to pick up a prototype. The robot is a
      flyweight contender for the title of most ambitious among the flapping
      robots, generically called ornithopters, entomopters or micro air vehicles.
      It has yet to fly.

      The device is being developed under a five-year, roughly $2.5 million
      contract. That's pricey for something best described in pocket-change terms.

      It takes about a dime's worth of raw materials, including stainless steel
      that must be folded under a microscope, to build one of the robots. A single
      penny weighs more than two dozen of the devices. The wingspan is about the
      diameter of a quarter.

      Officials envision soldiers deploying the robotic insects to snoop in

      "It takes an individual and extends their sensory capabilities -- like a
      periscope -- but it flies independently," said Roy Kornbluh, an engineer at
      SRI International in Menlo Park. The firm is helping to fund development at
      the University of Toronto of a four-winged robot called "Mentor."

      In February, the one-pound device became the first ornithopter to
      successfully hover, doing so with the agility of a hummingbird. Mentor is
      about one foot across but researchers hope eventually to shrink it to
      hummingbird size and weight.

      Researchers remain enchanted by flapping flight because it would make for
      miniature flying machines that don't gobble large amounts of power.

      "Flapping is much more aerodynamically efficient at small sizes, rather than
      conventional aerodynamics," said Michael Dickinson, a professor of
      integrative biology at Berkeley and a pioneer in understanding insect

      But endowing a robot with enough smarts to control the flapping for
      sustained flight remains difficult, if not impossible.

      Consider the fruit fly, Dickinson said. It beats its wings 200 times a
      second, flapping and rotating them in a complicated orchestration that
      relies on three distinct mechanisms to provide lift.

      The fruit fly can make a mid0-air U-turn in just eight strokes and 40
      milliseconds. Fearing estimated that to copy that level of control, the
      Berkeley bug would have about a three-stroke margin of error. Mistime the
      fourth stroke, and the fly goes into a death spiral, he said.

      "The good news is we know what the wings need to do. The bad news is we
      don't know how to do it," Fearing said.

      Robert Michelson, principal research engineer at the Georgia Institute of
      Technology Research Institute, said it is too difficult to build a robot
      that relies solely on modulating its flapping wings for stability and
      control. The Mentor uses four tail-like fins to direct the downwash of its
      wings to remain aloft.

      Michelson said he is developing a flapping robot, called the entomopter,
      that will use bursts of gas, a byproduct of the device's chemical propulsion
      system, to adjust the amount of lift provided by each of the robot's twin
      sets of wings.

      "Until we can do things as well as you find them in creation, you have to go
      to alternate techniques," Michelson said of his device, which NASA is eyeing
      for use on Mars.

      Michael Goldfarb, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at
      Vanderbilt University, believes that limitations in battery and artificial
      muscle technology will keep the tiniest ornithopters grounded.

      Goldfarb's own efforts to build a flapping robot with a 6-inch wingspan were

      "Our conclusion to that study was it's not doable with state-of-the-art
      technology," he said.

      As it works to get its fly to take wing, the Berkeley team acknowledges it
      has set its sights high.

      "It's a little bit of a moonshot," Dickinson said.


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