The world of science buzzed in 2012 when Harvard researchers
announced they had created a robot insect. Smaller than a penny,
lighter than a paper clip, the RoboBee could fly and land. A year
later, it could follow a preprogrammed path. More recently, it
became capable of swimming underwater.
Despite these advancements, the diminutive drones are years away
from pollinating crop fields, searching collapsed buildings or
performing the numerous other tasks that researchers envision
swarms of the tiny machines doing. This is mainly because the
RoboBee cannot sense the size, shape or distance of approaching
objects. In other words, it can’t see.
To solve the problem, a UB-led team of researchers, supported by
a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is
testing ways to shrink lidar—the laser-based sensor system
currently used in driverless cars.
“Essentially, it’s the same technology that
automakers are using to ensure that driverless cars don’t
crash into things,” says Karthik Dantu, a computer science professor in
UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who is
leading the project. “Only we need to shrink that technology
so it works on robot bees that are no bigger than your
Developed in the 1960s, lidar works like radar, except that it
emits invisible laser beams instead of microwaves. Mounted on a
car, the beams capture light reflected from distant objects.
Sensors then measure the time it takes the light to return to
calculate the distance and shape of the objects. The information is
analyzed by computer algorithms to form an image of the car’s
path, which enables the car to “see” its environment
and follow traffic signals, avoid obstacles and make other
These systems, which are typically mounted on the car roof, are
about the size of a camping lantern. The team Dantu is leading,
which includes researchers from Harvard and the University of
Florida, wants to make a much smaller version, called
“The smallest commercial lidar systems weigh just over 800
grams, or nearly two pounds, but the robot bees are just 80
milligrams. To make this work, we need to shrink the entire sensing
system,” says Dantu, who worked on the RoboBee
project as a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard before joining
UB in 2013.
Over the next three years, Florida researchers will develop
tiny, lightweight sensors that measure the light’s
reflection. Meanwhile, Dantu will create algorithms that enable the
bees to process and map the world around them. Harvard researchers
will then incorporate the technology into the bees.
The technology is years, if not decades, away from commercial
viability. For example, the bees currently do not fly solo; they
are tethered by a wire to an external power source.
But the potential applications are inspiring. For example,
swarms of robot bees could be deployed to monitor air quality or
the health of crops. They could be sent out to conduct search
missions during landslides and other disasters, or examine
buildings damaged by earthquakes.
Microlidar could be used to improve endoscopic tools, the
wand-like probes that doctors use in surgery to visualize internal
organs, and wearable technology, including sensors that monitor our
bodies for signs of illness or stress. It could also help people
use mobile devices in a way similar to Microsoft Kinect, which
enables users to interact with computers by detecting the gestures
“The technology could have so many uses, which have the potential to help so many people in need,” says Dantu. “That’s what really excites me about the work we’re doing.”