A team of researchers plans to upgrade the miniature bee robot known as the RoboBee and equip it with an ultra-tiny laser range detector which can be used as an on-board sensor. The RoboBee was originally designed by engineers from Harvard University to have both aerial and aquatic abilities.

The bot's size is that of an actual insect, and its flight movements were patterned after a real insect as well. At the moment, however, the RoboBee is technically blind. Its lack of depth perception (the ability to perceive the world in three dimensions or 3D) is a limitation which can hinder its actions.

Now, scientists from the University of Buffalo plan to develop RoboBees that emit invisible light pulses through a micro-LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). It will enable the insect bots to detect whether an object is nearby. The sensor can also calculate the distance and shape of the objects.

"Essentially, it's the same technology that automakers are using to ensure that driverless cars don't crash into things," says Karthik Dantu, a computer scientist from the university.

Dantu explains that they will have to shrink the micro-LIDAR in a size no bigger than a penny so that it wouldn't add too much weight to the RoboBee.

The project, funded by the National Science Foundation with a $1.1 million grant, is a collaborative effort between Buffalo, Harvard and the University of Florida. Harvard, along with Northeastern University, initiated the creation of the RoboBees.

Researchers say that the small bots can be used in several applications such as the pollination of crops, military surveillance, search and rescue during natural disasters, traffic monitoring and weather and climate mapping. By putting these small bots in colonies, they could coordinate a larger accomplishment of tasks, researchers believe.

Robert J. Wood, a member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, said that bioinspired robots such as the RoboBee are important tools for experimentations. He explained that the ability to faithfully recreate complex devices similar to interesting organisms is essential to the project.

Scientists hope that the research will open up new and practical innovations from developmental biology and entomology to electrical engineering and amorphous computing.

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