Robotic Flies at Harvard

Researchers from Harvard and UC Berkeley have collaborated to build a 60-milligram robotic fly, the smallest scale biomimetic device ever created. Although the robot is currently only capable of tethered vertical flight, the technology could one day lead to miniature drones with military or rescue functions.

Houseflies, and all insects capable of flight, are extremely efficient in their movement. “Developed” over millions of years, it’s extremely difficult to reproduce a fly’s ability with out current technology. Trying to reproduce it on such a small scale is even harder. “Simply scaling down existing macro-scale techniques [would] not come close to the performance that we need,” says Robert Wood, an engineering professor at Harvard and the researcher leading the robotic-fly project.

Wood’s team was thus forced to fabricate all of their parts in-house with laser micromachining. Small carbon-polymer joints were able to twist and rotate in almost the same manner as an actual fly. The carbon-fiber wings are required to create two to three times more lift than a fixed-wing aircraft, but the team’s robot is able to perfectly mimic a real fly’s takeoff.

The robotic fly has 15-millimeter wings that beat 110 times per second.

From here, the team is looking to integrate flight controllers, so that the fly could maneuver in all directions, and an onboard power supply. Sensors and flight software so that the robot can avoid obstacles is likely a ways away, but is the logical next step towards functional drones. In the near future, drones developed from Wood’s robotic fly could be spying for the CIA or locating earthquake victims in a collapsed building.


1 “Robotic Insect Takes off”, R Ross, Technology Review. MIT. (2007)

2 “An Insect’s Role in the Development of Micro Air Vehicles”, M Camper [pdf]