Researchers Create Tiny, Cicada-Like Drones to Invade Small Spaces

Researchers Create Tiny, Cicada-Like Drones to Invade Small Spaces
Screenshot: Kevin Yufeng Chen

When we think of drones, we imagine massive, quadrotor machines that buzz around like manic seagulls. But what if your drown was small enough to accidentally swallow?

That’s what MIT Assistant Professor Kevin Yufeng Chen has built: a set of tiny drones with elastic actuators that power insect-like wings. The entire package weighs 665 mg or about the “approximately the mass of a large bumble bee,” according to Chen.

Chen created the drones alongside MIT PhD student Zhijian Ren, Harvard University PhD student Siyi Xu, and City University of Hong Kong roboticist Pakpong Chirarattananon. The goal is to use these tiny, soft drones to explore close spaces where rigid drones will break on contact with hard surfaces. It’s also very agile.

The team calls the drones “hybrid soft-rigid,” a design that ensures the drones can flap their wings 500 times per second but can also survive the various frictions and forces that could snap a normal drone to bits.

Photo: Kevin Yufeng Chen Photo: Kevin Yufeng Chen

“You can hit it when it’s flying, and it can recover,” said Chen. “It can also do aggressive manoeuvres like somersaults in the air.”

Chen expects the drones to be used in tight spaces like engines and machinery.

“Think about the inspection of a turbine engine. You’d want a drone to move around [an enclosed space] with a small camera to check for cracks on the turbine plates,” Chen said to MIT’s Daniel Ackerman.

The drones are currently square, but Chen intends to make them look more like dragonflies, further increasing the robot’s ick factor. Luckily, there are no plans to unleash these on an unsuspecting public any time soon.