Harvard Engineers Make A Robotic Bee That Can Fly And Swim

In the movies, robotic insects have been around for a while; they usually act as silicon-based, literal flies-on-the-wall, spying on the bad guys a film.

In real life, engineers are developing these robot spies. However, there are challenges. It is hard for these kinds of robots to do certain things, like going from flying in air, to swimming in water, and getting back out again.

These are the hurdles engineers at Harvard have recently gotten over, bringing these potential spy flies closer to reality.


Yufeng Chen of Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically-Inspired Engineering just published the breakthrough study in Science Robotics. 

The first key issue is the fact that this little bee-like robot has wings, but they did not know which speed to make them flap.

Faster is better for flying, but can cause wing breakage in water. Making the flapping slower is better for swimming, but they become useless for flying.

The study has found the Goldilocks frequency- the flapping speed that is just right- which allows the robot to both fly and swim.

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The second issue is with going from the water, and taking off into the air. The issue is that the surface tension of the water, in other words, the water at the water-air interface, is really hard to break.

The amazing plan that Chen and colleagues came up with was extremely innovative.

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The bee “drinks” a bit of the water it is in, and then, uses what is called an electrolytic plate breaks the water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen.

These gases are flammable, and the bee takes advantage of that. It sparks it, and the whole bee then explodes out of the water, blasting off through the surface tension, and is able to then fly in the air.

This amazing innovation brings science closer to mimicking science fiction.