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The World's Smallest Robot Is a Drone

Its name is RoboBee.
Image via Harvard

A team of Harvard scientists just announced a very exciting breakthrough, well summed up in the paper they just published in Science: "Controlled Flight of a Biologically Inspired, Insect-Scale Robot." In other words, they built a tiny bug bot — the world's tiniest, in fact — that can fly well. Its name is RoboBee.

"Wow wow wow!" is probably your first thought. "Wait a second, can that thing carry a camera," should be your second. Because the answer is yes, eventually more advanced versions of the RoboBee could become the world's tiniest drone. Its creators say they imagine these little guys will do all kinds of things, from monitoring environmental conditions to helping out with search and rescue missions.


"What a charitable little drone!" is what researchers want you to think. Because for all of the Earth-helping and lost child-saving revolutionary technology like this can do, there are probably twice as many military applications for them. Otherwise, why would DARPA be investing so much in micro robotics programs?

As early as 1992, everybody's favorite source for funding futuristic research projects expressed interest in tiny bug bots. That year, DARPA hosted a workshop called  "Future Technology-Driven Revolutions In Military Operations." The resulting publication two years later said very clearly that the "development of insect-size flying and crawling systems capable of a wide variety of battlefield sensor missions" was identified as a "promising program area."

Fast forward just a couple of years and DARPA started throwing real money at the idea. Some $35 million went into pursuing the development of so-called micro air vehicles (MAVs). At that point in time, the Pentagon (probably correctly) believed that some sort of remote-controlled fly-thing with a camera mount could work as a scout and save some soldiers' lives. Things really spun out of control from that point on.

The military's unmanned aerial vehicle AKA drone program has become a big deal. Since the turn of the century, the disparate branches of the military have all incorporated the use of drones for their own ends. The Army uses them to killing terrorists (and some civilians too) on the battlefield. The Navy's now designing a super drone that can automatically take off and land on an aircraft carrier. The Air Force built its own "bumblebee-sized" drone nearly five years ago. They even made a video about how they could drop a swarm of these mini-drones, using "microsensors and microprocessor technology to navigate and track targets through complicated terrain, such as urban areas."

So when you're picturing all of the wonderful charitable things that Harvard's new RoboBees can do, keep in mind all of the more unsavory things that they'll be doing, too. It's unclear how much if any funding for the research came directly from DARPA, but there's plenty of parallel research happening within the military itself. The project at Harvard's School Engineering and Applied Sciences does receive funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) — which only goes to show that one man's science is another man's weapon.