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RoboBees ready for mass production. Thanks, Harvard!

Harvard University's robotics lab designs an origami-inspired method for stamping out large numbers of pop-up flying microrobots.

This insect-inspired microrobot was made from the assembly platform next to it in a manufacturing process that could be automated. Screen capture Martin LaMonica/CNET

Harvard University has developed a method for churning out coin-size microrobots en masse.

By drawing on the ideas of origami, researchers have engineered a fabrication technique that produces a small flying robot much the way a children's pop-up book creates a structure.

The method can be used for different types of millimeter-scale electromechanical machines, Harvard said yesterday. But researchers developed the system specifically to replace the painstakingly slow process of manually making insect-like flying robots for its RoboBees project.

"You'd take a very fine tungsten wire and dip it in a little bit of superglue," Pratheev Sreetharan, a doctoral student who co-developed the technique, said in a statement. "Then, with that tiny ball of glue, you'd go in under a microscope like an arthroscopic surgeon and try to stick it in the right place."

The research group made prototype RoboBees with its method which they say can be scaled up through automation.

The group extensively used CAD software to model a multilayered "assembly platform" made of carbon fiber, plastic, and other materials. Once that platform is created, the manufacturing machine pushes pins from below which cause the microrobot "pop up" from the underlying structure and lock into shape.

The device is then dipped in liquid metal to fix brass joints and prevent it from unlocking. Finally, a laser cuts the robot from the bottom assembly and it is ready to use.

The MicroBees project is seeking to develop autonomous flying robots inspired by flying insects. Harvard researchers envision they can be used to pollinate crops because natural bee colonies have been dying in large numbers. The MicroBees could also be used for search and rescue missions, military surveillance, and weather and climate monitoring, according to Harvard.

The idea of using large numbers of small robots for a specific task has led to research to better manage and manufacture microrobots. Harvard also developed a system that allows people to update the software on several walking microbots, called Kilobots, at once.

Once an assembly scaffold is built, the manufacturing machine pushes on the structure to create a three-dimensional robot in a technique similar to the one pictured here. Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET