RoboBee is all the buzz this year. This insect-inspired microrobot drone which is half the size of a paperclip “flew” its way into the history books in August 2019 as the lightest vehicle to take a sustained, untethered solo flight. With the help of a second pair of wings and other modifications, Harvard researchers nicknamed the bot RoboBee “X-Wing,” after the four-winged starfighters from “Star Wars,” cutting its power cord for the first time as it achieved this groundbreaking flight.

Vaughn College is spotlighting this exciting advancement in robotics and electrical engineering to show how groups of tiny robots like RoboBee may someday be invaluable in search and rescue missions, surveillance, environmental monitoring and even crop pollination; similar to how experts see the larger purpose of drones in the future. (Read about Vaughn’s robotics team, former winners of the VEX Worlds Robotics Competition and how the team continues to up its game each year at the competition.)

Busy as a bee

With decades of research under its belt, a research robotics team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute is credited with revolutionary breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials and design to make this untethered flight happen. They developed a flapping wing system made of a composite material and constructed it through a process called laser machining. For nearly a decade, RoboBee remained tethered. Adding another set of wings to RoboBee and less visible changes to the actuators and transmission ratio gave the microrobot enough lift for researchers to attach solar cells to an electronics panel located under the bee.

Inspired by nature

For centuries, animal flight has fascinated and inspired scientists to develop machines that can fly with the use of flapping wings. Nature and bees were the motivation behind RoboBee to simulate the way bees fly―working both independently and collectively and even pollenating flowers. The vision was to develop autonomous micro aerial vehicles capable of self-contained, self-directed flight, and to achieve coordinated behavior in large groups―just like natural bees. As mentioned before, these lightweight, tiny robots measure about half the size of a paper clip and weigh less than one-tenth of a gram. So, how did they do it?

Simulating a real bee, researchers designed the RoboBee into three main components, consisting of the Body, Brain and Colony. This is how each component was developed:

  • Body—Fly on its own aided by a compact and integrated power source
  • Brain—“Smart” sensors and control electronics mimic the eyes and antennae of a bee and can sense and respond to the environment
  • Colony—Coordinate the behavior of several independent robots to work together as an effective unit

Outdoor flight out of reach―for now

The latest advancements may have the RoboBee X-Wing flying solo in the lab, but more work is needed to make outdoor flight possible. The reason lies with the amount of solar power needed to fuel the solar cells which will enable the microrobots to fly outside. Currently, the RoboBee X-Wing requires the power of approximately three Earth suns to fly. Wow! That’s a lot of energy. With the help of halogen lights, researchers can simulate this enormous level of sunlight in the lab to keep the RoboBees in a state of sustained untethered flight.

Are you interested in robotics and mechatronic engineering? Discover all that’s possible with an engineering and technology degree from Vaughn College.

Photo credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

What do you think of when you hear the term, “flying cars”? Maybe a sci-fi movie or even a throwback to an old cartoon comes to mind, where a futuristic object would transport passengers in the air instead of on the ground. How cool was that, right? The reality, however, is that the future is in the making. Wondering how this could be possible? Remember these three words: “urban air mobility.”

What is urban air mobility?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) defines urban air mobility as a “system for air passenger and cargo transportation within an urban area, inclusive of small package delivery and other urban unmanned aircraft systems services.” In other words, NASA’s vision of this new era in air travel is ensuring safe and efficient air transportation as a revolutionary way of safely moving people and cargo from one place to another in congested environments.

How many times have you sat in traffic and wished you could fly over the gridlock? Urban air mobility could change that, as small air taxis are the next generation of autonomous electric passenger air vehicles (PAV) that could fly small groups of travelers above populated areas faster and cleaner than ground vehicles.

NASA is exploring the reality of urban air mobility, thanks to the combined efforts of new business models and transportation technology tied to both aviation―and some outside the industry―to determine what is required to make it happen. The urban air mobility subproject of NASA’s Air Traffic Management Exploration project (ATM-X) is currently in the process of exploring various use cases and testing technologies to with stakeholders in the aviation community.

Safety first

Admit it. The safety factor crossed your mind when you first read about urban air mobility. The thought of travelling in a “flying car”―as fun as that may sound―would make anyone think twice. And with good reason. Urban air mobility operations use unmanned aircraft (UA), which operate with no pilot on board. Today, small delivery drones are in operation, but when it comes to securing the acceptance of regulators and the general public for passenger use, the stakes go up. Here’s why: Without a pilot on board, there’s nobody to “see and avoid” potential collisions with other airspace users, severe weather conditions and other dangerous situations such as flying near bridges, buildings and other man-made structures.

The good news is that even considering the challenges, NASA says they have a handle on it. They are working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other government agencies, along with airspace operators, vehicle developers and academia to identify and overcome significant barriers and challenges. On the flip side, urban air mobility comes with substantial cost advantages over traditional ground travel and air transportation which require heavy infrastructure such as roads, rail, bridges, tunnels or airports—not to mention a significant reduction in a traveler’s commute time.

Investing in the future

Recent NASA-commissioned market studies revealed that by the year 2030, as many as 500 million flights per year for package delivery services and 750 million flights per year in air metro services could catapult urban air mobility as a relevant and lucrative enterprise.

According to the groundbreaking study, “Urban Air Mobility―Economics and Global Markets,” published by Nexa Advisors and the Vertical Flight Society, $318 billion could be invested over the next 20 years to transform urban air mobility in 74 cities around the world. This anticipated value of the urban air mobility market includes the infrastructure of vertiports and air traffic management, along with aircraft operated in-airport shuttle services, on-demand air taxis, emergency services, business aviation and regional point-to-point charters. This report is a first attempt to identify the cost of urban air mobility infrastructure―estimated at $32 billion for all 74 cities by the year 2040―and is intended to guide prospective investors about current transportation issues, congestion and population density, among other factors. Despite the hefty $32 billion price tag, the study suggests potential revenues from this infrastructure could exceed $244 billion.

Do you want to be a part of paving the way towards the adoption of urban air mobility? Check out all of the engineering and technology degrees available at Vaughn, as well as the many opportunities to participate in various engineering clubs such as Robotics Club and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Club that allow hands-on design and construction of transportation technology.

The aviation industry may have a renewed “beacon” of hope for search and rescue missions. Recently, the FAA has incorporated recommendations by NASA’s Search and Rescue (SAR) to install and maintain Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) on airplanes. These NASA-designed satellite-aided search and rescue beacons―or ELTs―are instrumental in saving lives when it matters most and improving overall aviation safety.

Taking a renewed look at ELTs performance

Developed by NASA over 40 years ago, ELTs are beacons that are designed to automatically transmit distress signals to satellites in the event of a plane crash. In the past, the failure of some ELTs to work properly shed renewed light on the beacons’ safety and performance issues. As recently as 2010, a sea plane carrying nine passengers crashed in Alaska, claiming the lives of five passengers, including former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens. Former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe was among the four survivors. The failure of the plane’s ELT to activate stranded the survivors for a harrowing 12 hours until they were found by search and rescue teams.

Crash course in ELT research

The 2010 Alaska accident sparked NASA’s SAR team to launch a comprehensive study of ELT nonperformance. After reviewing thousands of crash reports, the SAR office determined that ELT failure was responsible for the loss of about 58 lives each year. Such tragic news set the wheels in motion for SAR to use NASA aeronautics expertise to study ELTs in simulated crash conditions. Using three decommissioned Cessna 172 aircraft at the Landing and Impact Research Facility―also known as the “gantry”―at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the SAR team hoisted the planes at varying heights and crashed them from three different configurations into a slab of dirt. With numerous ELTs installed on each plane, the SAR team studied each beacon to determine survivability and the causes of ELT failure in aviation distress.

Improving survivability and airplane safety

Imagine taking the search out of “search and rescue?” The survivability study revealed how making only a few adjustments to the installation would greatly improve ELT performance and airplane safety. Some of the ways the SAR team adjusted the installation of ELTs to improve performance included:

  • Mounting the ELT to a more rigid structure to decrease the likelihood of shear and cable detachment
  • Adding relief hooks to cabling to give the cable the slack it needed to prevent it from unplugging from the ELT
  • Adding an inexpensive fireproof sleeve to cabling to add vital minutes of ELT transmission in the event of a fire

Taking Next-gen SAR technology out of this world

NASA’s continuing efforts in ELT technology could take the second-generation of distress beacons to the moon. The SAR office is developing next-gen beacons that will use a new constellation of satellite-based search and rescue instruments. These new miniature beacons will offer significantly improved location accuracy and detection times. This exciting development will not only take this next generation of beacons worldwide, but out of this world―literally―as NASA is planning on using them on Artemis astronauts’ life preservers to ensure their accurate location upon splashdown from the Orion capsule.

Interested in supporting aerospace initiatives like this? An engineering and technology degree from Vaughn College will open the door to many opportunities involving the design and construction of aircraft equipment. Many Vaughn mechatronic engineering graduates become interns at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, such as Joseph Kamel. Explore all the possibilities of a futureproof career at Vaughn.