Tiny drones that fly like insects have been created by British scientists.
The robots are about the size of a bumblebee – and even have flapping wings.
They conquer a final frontier – reaching environments where others simply can’t go.
The miniature devices could help in search and rescue operations after earthquakes – or terrorist attacks.
They may even help save the planet – by taking over the work of pollinators.
Mimicking flapping wings in nature has stumped mechanical engineers for years.
The Bristol University team developed a new artificial muscle drive system called LAZA (Liquid-amplified Zipping Actuator).
It achieves the motion – using no rotating parts or gears. The technique called ‘electromechanical zipping’ does away with conventional motors.
Project leader Professor Jonathan Rossiter said: ‘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.
‘They would perform environmentally critical tasks such as plant pollination and exciting emerging roles such as finding people in collapsed buildings.’
The machines described in Science Robotics pave the way for smaller, lighter and more effective micro flying robots.
Until now they 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 effects.
Taking inspiration from bees and other flying insects, the researchers simplified the flapping mechanism.
In experiments, a pair of LAZA-powered flapping wings provided more energy compared with insect muscle of the same weight.
It was enough to fly a robot across a room at 18 body lengths per second.
They also demonstrated how the LAZA can deliver consistent flapping over more than one million cycles.
This is important for making flapping robots that can undertake long-haul flights.
The team expect the LAZA to be adopted as a fundamental building block for a range of autonomous insect-like flying robots.
Dr Tim Helps, who developed the LAZA system, said: ‘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.’
In Britain, a third of wild bees and are in decline. If current trends continue, certain species will be lost altogether.
They sustain crops, such as oil seed rape. Every square kilometre in the UK lost an average of 11 species of bee and hoverfly between 1980 and 2013.
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