Robot Hummingbird Soars On Carbon Fiber Wings

Technology |  2 min. read

(Above Photo from Bio-Robotics Lab/Purdue University)

What weighs less than half an ounce…can hover in mid-air…and can turn on a dime?


And now, this….

(Photo from Bio-Robotics Lab/Purdue University)

…a hummingbird robot (developed by engineers at Purdue University).

Nature gets the credit for the hummingbird, of course — but in a way, Nature gets the credit for the robotic version too.  That’s because the robot version’s “feathers” — are carbon fiber and polyester film (think Mylar®) wings, and carbon fiber and polyester start with petrochemicals.

The particular molecule that’s the starting point for carbon fiber is the petrochemical, propylene.  That’s used to make polyacrylonitrile, or PAN (if you’re in a hurry) — and after some heating, some carbonizing, some stretching  — now you’ve got carbon fiber — the only material strong enough and light enough to make veins for a hummingbird wing (robot).  The polyester film provides the main surface of the wing structure and that polyester owes its special properties to ethylene and xylene, both fundamental petrochemical building blocks.  And petrochemicals, of course, begin with oil and natural gas before they are turned into products we use every day.

Ok, so maybe you’re thinking that a hummingbird robot is pretty cool, but, then what?

Here’s what:  a hummingbird robot that can fly like a bird and hover like a helicopter could go into a building, or the wreckage of a building, and find people trapped inside.

Thanks to AI (artificial intelligence), this hummingbird can “learn” its surroundings, and respond — so it can make its way through a small space in the dark, “feeling” its way around.

Even though it weighs next to nothing, it can fly in the wind.  It can even lift things (ok, lightweight things).

And, since this is still in the experimental stage — who knows what Hummingbird 3.0 will able to do.  Whatever that is though, it’ll be worth watching.  And speaking of watching, if you’d like to see a bit of this bird in action (and hear about some of the principles behind it, here’s a little show-and-tell for you, courtesy of the engineers at Purdue).