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Minute Robots Programmed to Think and Move like Insects

By Katie Lee on 2018-08-17

Engineers have already had successes in designing machines that look identical - or very similar - to insects. Insects, however, act in a very spastic manner which has been difficult for programmers to match. Recently, computer scientists have figured out a way to program robots to behave the way an insect does.

Soon enough, it will be difficult to distinguish between electronic insects and real ones. This is due to recent breakthroughs in programming which allow engineers to create a mechanical bug that does not only look like a bug, but acts like one too.

One of the main issues the were previously encountered in creating robot bugs was the fact that the insects need to be able to land on moving surfaces, sense the blowing wind, and change the trajectory of their flight based on these and many other factors that could affect its flight. The processing power needed for these elements, moreover, is ginormous. The bug would actually have to carry a desktop computer on its back in order to do all of these things. Silvia Ferrari, professor of both aerospace and mechanical engineering, thinks that neuromorphic computer chips could solve this problem.

Neuromorphic computer chips are an emerging type of computer chip that does not work the way traditional computer chips do. Traditional ones use the standard binary code of 0s and 1s. Neuromorphic computer chips use spikes of electrical current, which explains their names since they function similar to neurons in the brain. Ferrari’s lab is currently working to develop what is known as “event-based” sensing using the neuromorphic computer chips. This would allow a robot to be able to think while factoring in current events such as weather and wind speed. Neuromorphic computer chips also require significantly less power than normal chips which would allow designers to create a small insect that functions as such.

Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory has already developed Robot Bees which mass around 80 milligrams. The Robobees have multiple vision, optical flow, and motion sensors. The robot works extremely well except for the fact that it remains stuck to a power source. Harvard scientists are trying to develop a different kind of power source that would allow the Robobee to fly free. This is why the lab has joined forces with Ferrari’s lab.

"Getting hit by a wind gust or a swinging door would cause these small robots to lose control. We're developing sensors and algorithms to allow RoboBee to avoid the crash, or if crashing, survive and still fly," said Ferrari. "You can't really rely on prior modeling of the robot to do this, so we want to develop learning controllers that can adapt to any situation."

In order to expedite the developments process, Taylor Clawson - a doctoral student in Ferrari’s team - created a visual model in the form of a simulator. The simulator models the Harvard Robobee flying. Specifically, it shows the aerodynamic forces that influence its flight in order to accurately predict the decisions of an actual bee during flight in a complex environment.

"The simulation is used both in testing the algorithms and in designing them," claimed Clawson, who helped has successfully developed an autonomous flight controller for the robot using biologically inspired programming that functions as a neural network. "This network is capable of learning in real time to account for irregularities in the robot introduced during manufacturing, which make the robot significantly more challenging to control."

What could be the use for such a device, though? It is possible the the device could be used by law enforcement to gather intelligence on crime groups that could be hard to infiltrate. It could be used to take down drug-dealers or gangs in order to clean the world up. The device could also potentially be a bad idea considering spies from other countries could use it to infiltrate other governments. On a lighter side, a robot bee could solve the disappearing bee problem. With all the disappearing bees, pollination has been a question to many since bees are the main pollinators of flowers and other plants. Mass produced robot bees with a coat similar to that of actual bees could be used to pollinate flowers and who would know the difference.

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