Tag Archives: Michael Crichton

Harvard University researcher Chirarattananom’s Flight of the RoboBee

The flight of  Chirarattananom’s RoboBee took place last summer but the research has only now been published. There’s a May 2, 2013 news release on EurekAlert heralding this robotic first from 2012,

In the very early hours of the morning, in a Harvard robotics laboratory last summer, an insect took flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it leapt a few inches, hovered for a moment on fragile, flapping wings, and then sped along a preset route through the air.

Like a proud parent watching a child take its first steps, graduate student Pakpong Chirarattananon immediately captured a video of the fledgling and emailed it to his adviser and colleagues at 3 a.m.—subject line, “Flight of the RoboBee.”

“I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep,” recalls Chirarattananon, co-lead author of a paper published this week in Science.

The demonstration of the first controlled flight of an insect-sized robot is the culmination of more than a decade’s work, led by researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

Here’s what it looks like,

The tiny robot flaps its wings 120 times per second using piezoelectric actuators -- strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real-time. Credit: Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard University.

The tiny robot flaps its wings 120 times per second using piezoelectric actuators — strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real-time.
Credit: Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard University.

The Harvard [University] Gazette May 2, 2013 article by Caroline Perry, which originated the news release, provides more detail about what makes this particular robotic work unique,

“We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything,” explains Wood [Robert J. Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, Wyss core faculty member, and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported RoboBee project]. “We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target.”

Flight muscles, for instance, don’t come prepackaged for robots the size of a fingertip.

“Large robots can run on electromagnetic motors, but at this small scale you have to come up with an alternative, and there wasn’t one,” says co-lead author Kevin Y. Ma, a graduate student at SEAS.

The tiny robot flaps its wings with piezoelectric actuators — strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real time.

At tiny scales, small changes in airflow can have an outsized effect on flight dynamics, and the control system has to react that much faster to remain stable.

While it’s called the RoboBee project, the researchers’ inspiration for this prototype is a fly. Unlike most flies, this one is tethered, at least for now (from Perry’s article),

The prototypes are still tethered by a very thin power cable because there are no off-the-shelf solutions for energy storage that are small enough to be mounted on the robot’s body. High-energy-density fuel cells must be developed before the RoboBees will be able to fly with much independence.

Future research plans include (from Perry’s article),

… integrating the parallel work of many different research teams that are working on the brain, the colony coordination behavior, the power source, and so on, until the robotic insects are fully autonomous and wireless.

Here’s a citation for and a link to the research paper,

Controlled Flight of a Biologically Inspired, Insect-Scale Robot by Kevin Y. Ma,  Pakpong Chirarattananon,  Sawyer B. Fuller, and Robert J. Wood. Science 3 May 2013: Vol. 340 no. 6132 pp. 603-607 DOI: 10.1126/science.1231806

The paper is behind a paywall.

On reading about the RoboBee project I was reminded of Michael Crichton’s 2002 cautionary tale, Prey, which focuses on a possible future where small, swarming bots that fly threaten to take over the world. More happily, I was also inspired musically and found this rendition of the Flight of the Bumblebee,

Have a nice Friday, May 3, 2013!

Swarming robot droplets

The robot droplets are a bit bigger than you might expect, the size of ping pong balls, but the idea is intriguing and for those who’ve read Michael Crichton’s book, Prey, it could seem quite disturbing (from the University of Colorado Boulder multimedia page for ‘tiny robots’),

For anyone unfamiliar with Crichton’s Prey, here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry about the book which features nanobots operating as a swarm,

… As a result, hazardous elements such as the assemblers, the bacteria, and the nanobots were blown into the desert, evolving and eventually forming autonomous swarms. These swarms appear to be solar-powered and self-sufficient, reproducing and evolving rapidly. The swarms exhibit predatory behavior, attacking and killing animals in the wild, using code that Jack himself worked on. Most alarmingly, the swarms seem to possess rudimentary intelligence, the ability to quickly learn and to innovate. The swarms tend to wander around the fab plant during the day but quickly leave when strong winds blow or night falls.

The Dec. 14, 2012 posting by Alan on the Science Business website describes,

A computer science lab at University of Colorado in Boulder is building a miniature, limited-function robot designed to work in a swarm of similar devices. Computer science professor Nikolaus Correll and colleagues are building these small devices that they call droplets as building blocks for increasingly complex systems.

A University of Colorado Boulder Dec. 14, 2012 news release provides more details,

Correll and his computer science research team, including research associate Dustin Reishus and professional research assistant Nick Farrow, have developed a basic robotic building block, which he hopes to reproduce in large quantities to develop increasingly complex systems.

Recently the team created a swarm of 20 robots, each the size of a pingpong ball, which they call “droplets.” When the droplets swarm together, Correll said, they form a “liquid that thinks.”

To accelerate the pace of innovation, he has created a lab where students can explore and develop new applications of robotics with basic, inexpensive tools.

Similar to the fictional “nanomorphs” depicted in the “Terminator” films, large swarms of intelligent robotic devices could be used for a range of tasks. Swarms of robots could be unleashed to contain an oil spill or to self-assemble into a piece of hardware after being launched separately into space, Correll said.

Correll plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviors such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change. These behaviors could then be transferred to large swarms for water- or air-based tasks.

Correll hopes to create a design methodology for aggregating the droplets into more complex behaviors such as assembling parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.

There’s also talk about creating gardens in space,

He [Correll] also is continuing work on robotic garden technology he developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009. Correll has been working with Joseph Tanner in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department to further develop the technology, involving autonomous sensors and robots that can tend gardens, in conjunction with a model of a long-term space habitat being built by students.

Correll says there is virtually no limit to what might be created through distributed intelligence systems.

“Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells,” he said. “Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers.”

The scientists don’t seem to harbour any trepidations, I guess they’re leaving that to the writers.

Michael Crichton publishes nano novel from beyond the grave

Michael Crichton died in Nov. 2008 and his latest book, published Nov. 22, 2011, is titled Micro. It’s being billed as a nanotechnology thriller. From the Nov. 27, 2011 article by Philip Sherwell for The Telegraph,

The result is Mr Crichton’s 17th novel, Micro. About the first third of the 424 pages were written by the best-selling science fiction author himself, the rest by Richard Preston, a former veterinarian turned novelist [best known for Hot Zone].

Set in the rainforest of Hawaii, the techno-thriller features murderous micro-robots, a villainous nanotechnology entrepreneur and Harvard biology students shrunk to less than an inch tall, then exposed to the terrors of killer bugs, among other lethal threats of the natural world. It is, in many ways, a miniature version of the man-versus-dinosaur scenario of the Crichton classic, Jurassic Park.

Crichton did write an earlier ‘nano’ thriller, Prey. (I read it but was not especially impressed.)

If you are interested in the writing aspect, i.e., what is it like to collaborate with someone when all you have are the notes, then Sherwell’s article provides some good insight. Hint: Having the dead author’s longtime personal assistant ready to help is a great advantage.

I did find a Nov. 28, 2011 review of Micro by Jeff VanderMeer for the Los Angeles Times,

What if we had the technology to miniaturize people and objects? That’s the central premise behind “Micro” by “Jurassic Park’s” Michael Crichton and “The Hot Zone’s” Richard Preston. Crichton wrote one-third of “Micro” before his death in 2008 — which third seems largely irrelevant, as the entire novel functions as a well-oiled but oddly soulless machine. All of the edges have been sanded off of prose that is supremely functional and most of the workmanlike characters seem resigned to being transformed into actors on a movie screen

The premise bears a resemblance to the  one they used for the 1989 movie,  Honey, I shrunk the kids. From the Internet Movie Database page for the movie,

The scientist father of two teenage boys accidentally shrinks his and two other neighborhood teens to the size of insects. Now the teens must fight diminutive dangers as the father searches for them.

Of course, Honey, … was a comedy while Crichton specialized in thrillers.

ICON database and Michael Crichton, RIP

The International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) has announced a new tool for researchers. ICON has a nano-environment, health, and safety search function that will allow researchers to analyze ICON’s database of citations. The tool, which looks nifty, is located here.  For more details about tool capabilities and about the possibilities opened up to researchers, there’s the Nanowerk article.

I saw this reprint of an interview with Michael Crichton, a writer who died last week, discussing his then-new novel Prey. It’s illuminating to discover just what he thought of nanotechnology (one of the emerging technologies dramatised in Prey) and roles of the sciences, technology, and the humanities in society. The interview is here.