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Bristol scientists develop insect-sized flying robots with flapping wings

A University of Bristol team has created a new driving system for flapping-wing autonomous robots, which uses an electromechanical zipping mechanism that eliminates the need for conventional motors and gears.

This new advance, published today in the journal Science Robotics, could pave the way for smaller, lighter and more effective micro flying robots for environmental monitoring, search and rescue, and deployment in hazardous environments.

Typical micro flying robots have employed motors, gears, and other sophisticated transmission systems to move their wings up and down until now. This has resulted in increased complexity, weight, and unfavorable dynamic impacts.

Taking inspiration from bees and other flying insects, researchers from Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, led by Professor of Robotics Jonathan Rossiter, have successfully demonstrated a direct-drive artificial muscle system, called the Liquid-amplified Zipping Actuator (LAZA), that achieves wing motion using no rotating parts or gears.

Flying robot front view
Credit: Dr Tim helps

The researchers demonstrate how a pair of LAZA-powered flapping wings may deliver greater power than insect muscle of the same weight, allowing a robot to fly across a room at 18 body lengths per second.

They also showed how the LAZA can offer consistent flapping over a million cycles, which is critical for flapping robots that can fly great distances.

The LAZA is expected to be used as a key building piece for a variety of autonomous insect-like flying robots, according to the researchers.

“With the LAZA, we apply electrostatic forces directly on the wing, rather than through a complex, inefficient transmission system,” explained Dr. Tim Helps, primary author and developer of the LAZA technology. This improves performance and simplifies design, allowing for the development of a new class of low-cost, lightweight flapping micro-air vehicles for future applications such as autonomous inspection of off-shore wind farms.”

“Making smaller and better performing flapping wing micro robots is a major task,” Professor Rossiter stated. LAZA is a significant step toward autonomous flying robots that could be as small as insects and conduct environmentally crucial duties like plant pollination as well as interesting new responsibilities like discovering individuals in collapsed buildings.”

Source: ‘Liquid-amplified zipping actuators for micro-air vehicles with transmission-free flapping’ by T. Helps, C. Romero, M. Taghavi, A. Conn and J. Rossiter in Science Robotics

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