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Winged robot smaller than a pea could pollinate crops

A miniscule robot that flies by wind and is controlled by light could help to pollinate crops.

Researchers at Tampere University in Finland have developed the Flying Aero-robots based on Light Responsive Materials Assembly (Fairy) project) with the hope that they will mitigate the decline in the world’s bee population.


The rise of stimuli-responsive polymers has brought about a wealth of materials for small-scale, wirelessly controlled soft-bodied robots.


Thinking beyond conventional robotic mobilities already demonstrated in synthetic systems, such as walking, swimming and jumping, flying in air by dispersal, gliding, or even hovering is a frontier yet to be explored by responsive materials.


And the researchers are doing just that with a design inspired by the seed of dandelion, resembling several biomimetic features, including high porosity, lightweight form, and separated vortex ring generation under a steady wind flow.


Superior to its natural counterparts, this artificial seed is equipped with a soft actuator made of light-responsive liquid crystalline elastomer, which induces reversible opening/closing actions of the bristles upon visible light excitation.


This incredible shape-morphing enables manual tuning of terminal velocity, drag coefficient, and wind threshold for dispersal. Optically controlled wind-assisted lift-off and landing actions, and a light-induced local accumulation in descending structures have also been demonstrated by the researchers. The results offer novel approaches for wirelessly controlled, miniature pollinator devices that can passively navigate over a large aerial space.


Thanks to its lightweight structure – the robot measures less than 5mm and can easily float in wind.


“This will have a huge impact on agriculture globally since the loss of pollinators due to global warming has become a serious threat to biodiversity and food production,” doctoral researcher Hao Zeng said.


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