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Robot fireflies are here: MIT scientists create flying 'insect-scale robots'

By Taffy Bernales Published Jun 27, 2022 5:32 pm

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created trackable “insect-scale robots” that could possibly assist in future search-and-rescue missions.  

Taking inspiration from fireflies, the tiny robots have wings with micro “electroluminescent soft artificial muscles” that light up during flights, enabling communication.

As stated in MIT’s press release, rescue missions could utilize these roboting lightning bugs, which conveniently weigh no more than a paper clip, for motion tracking and communication.

With the help of three smartphone cameras, the robots’ lightweight and luminescent characteristics make tracking their outside-lab flights possible. 

“If you think of large-scale robots, they can communicate using a lot of different tools — Bluetooth, wireless, all those sorts of things. But for a tiny, power-constrained robot, we are forced to think about new modes of communication,” said Kevin Chen, senior author of the research paper and assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). 

He referred to the creation as a “major step” towards flying the robots outdoors, where there is no “well-tuned, state-of-the-art motion tracking system.”  

“I believe the true momentum is that this latest development could turn out to be a milestone toward the demonstration of these robots outside controlled laboratory conditions,” stated Pakpong Chirarattananon, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the City University of Hong Kong.  

The research on the robotic lighting bugs was published this June in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

Aside from Chen, collaborators include lead author and EECS graduate student Suhan Kim, EECS graduate student Yi-Hsuan Hsiao, Yu Fan Chen SM ’14, PhD ’17, and Ningxia University associate professor Jie Mao.  

Check out these glowing micro machines in action in MIT's video below.