Tiny Drone Learns to Fly—and Land

Don’t swat this fly on the wall.

Scientists have developed a tiny, insect-sized drone that can stop, take a break, then take off again. The research team behind the bug-like flier published their results in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

Moritz Alexander Graule—a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard professor Robert Wood, and their co-authors of the study set out to solve a problem: Microscopic aerial vehicles would have many practical applications such as monitoring disaster areas and creating communications networks (and, one imagines, snooping). That is, they would if it were not for the fact that they typically run out of power pretty quickly from spending so much time in the air.

If the drones were able to anchor themselves to a perch when they didn’t need to fly around, they might be able to run longer. But these tiny drones are too small to sport hefty landing gear. And other strategies for keeping the drones anchored as they take a break—like adhesives—might make it challenging for the drone to resume its flight.

So, as a solution, Graule and his colleagues created a drone smaller than a bee (nicknamed RoboBee) with a tiny landing patch on its ‘head’ that emits a small charge of static electricity. The electrostatic adhesion created by this charge allows the tiny drone to cling overhanging surfaces, like a leaf, or a ceiling—just as a staticky sweater or balloon might cling to hair.

But the ability to hang on to a leaf doesn’t mean much if the robot can’t find its way there. Right now, the little drone is able gauge its position using feedback from an external motion tracking arena. But there have been some hiccups. One landing trial failed when the robot disappeared behind a leaf before it had lined itself up with its landing target.

Because they currently depend on external feedback about their positions, these little insectoid drones won’t be ready to deploy as robotic flies on the wall for some time. When they are, though, you may want to reconsider your fly-swatter.