Harvard SEAS had just achieved a milestone in aviation history. Its Microrobotics Lab had just tested the latest version of Robobee, what is now currently considered as the smallest untethered vehicle to have ever successfully achieved sustained flight.
The Robobee started as a small (pun intended) project in 2008. The prototype was built within a 60-milligram frame, significantly tinier than its current iteration. This first version, however, was technically unsuccessful. While it has provided proof of concept by its short test flight, it was unable to achieve long sustained flight.
Since then, the Robobee was redesigned and reconfigured endlessly for the next decade. Much of the upgrades involved efficiency and versatility, being built with the objective of getting it to work with the least complex mechanics possible, while still having an array of different navigational options.
The iteration of Robobee that the Harvard SEAS research team currently has holds a relatively long body frame. Flight is achieved via four wings, each having a 3.5-centimeter wingspan, as opposed to the original two-wing configuration of earlier iterations. It has a total weight of 259 milligrams, and a lifting capacity just barely enough to allow it to fly (290 milligrams). It operates under 115 milliwatts, which, as described is a consumption rate far smaller than one single tiny LED on Christmas lights. Energy is provided via super tiny solar cells, which comprise only about 10 milligrams of the total weight of the contraption.
While it may not look small and light visually, smallest toy quadcopter drones, in comparison, still weigh at around one or two full grams (1,000~2,000 milligrams). This makes them still around four to eight times heavier than Robobee. Thus, the claim that it is the smallest vehicle to ever achieve sustained flight stays true and accurate.
Robobee was designed primarily as a challenge to test how far innovation and design can go in terms of building things at the millimeter scale. It does not have any direct applications. However, the techniques learned, and the technologies developed for Robobee will eventually be applied to more practical situations, such as “minimally-invasive surgical devices, wearable sensors, assistive robots, and haptic communication devices – to name just a few.”
Curious as to how it exactly flies? Take a closer look at the research team’s official video: