Harvard researchers recently created a miniature mechanized bee called the Monolithic Bee or MoBee using a new technology that produces self-assembling three dimensional machines from flat sets of components. The bee robot is assembled using layers of differing materials on an assembly scaffold – the body of the bee folds together like a pop-up book, and once released from the scaffold it becomes an autonomous, ridged 3-D object whose wings flap when electrical current is applied. The technology could be used to create complex devices using manufacturing techniques similar to those used to make circuit boards.
The Monolithic Bee was created by the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory, which has been researching ways to create tiny bee like robots capable of moving and acting as a single colony. After building the tiny machines painstakingly by hand with mixed results, the team came upon an elegant solution.
The tiny mechanism measures 2.4 millimeters tall and is made from 18 layers of materials applied to provides joints, the body and mechanical connections. MoBees start as an octagon of carbon fiber plates about the diameter of a quarter. Layers of plastic film are aligned by posts and placed between the laser cut carbon fiber slices, providing flexible joints with adhesive sheets. Additional layers of titanium, brass, and ceramic provide a means of electrifying the robot.
The support scaffolding around the bug size robot is the key to the self assembly process. Placed under tension, the scaffolding raises the parts of the robot into place and secure it with a few well placed solder joints. The robot is then disconnected from the surrounding plate as a fully functional tiny mechanism. The process uses 137 origami-like folds to complete the robot in seconds.
The design hints at a new way to manufacture sophisticated 3 dimensional products by printing layers of different materials upon each other, similar to how electronics manufactures assemble chips and circuit boards.