What flies, dives and swims?

Monday, January 8, 2018


Farrell Helbling, from the Microrobotics Lab at Harvard University, talks about their new robo-insect that can do just that.

GIF of the water-to-air transition (bottom panels). Credit: Yufeng Chen, E. Farrell Helbling, and Hongqiang Wang.

Last year, the group created the RoboBee, a buzzing bot the size of a bee that could hover and perch in the air and potentially help pollinate flowers. Now, researchers from the Harvard Microrobotics Lab have engineered a robot that can not only flap its wings, but also escape the surface tension of the water to get back into the air. To move between water and air, the robo-insect chemically decomposes water into gases and uses those for ignition. This capability of navigating between air and water could be useful in the future for underwater search-rescue operations and to monitor water quality.

Farrell Helbling, a Ph.D. candidate in the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University and one of the researchers on the project, joins Ira to talk about the latest member of the robo-insect family whose exploits appear in the journal Science Robotics.

Print the excerpt transcript.


  • What does Farrell Helbling mean when she uses the term “bio-inspired?” Give an example of something else that is bio-inspired.
  • There are already robots that can either swim or fly. Why is the robot designed by Helbling and her team so exciting?
  • What were some of the design constraints that the robo-insect team had to consider?
  • Why was emerging from the water going to be tough for the robot? How did the engineers address that issue?

GIF of the air-to-water (top panels) and the water-to-air transition (bottom panels).
Credit: Yufeng Chen, E. Farrell Helbling, and Hongqiang Wang.

  • This robot can swim, launch itself into the sky, and fly. Brainstorm some potential uses for a robot like this. Keep in mind that the current design weighs less than 1/10th of a penny. What modifications to the design, if any, would be required for your proposed uses?
  • Explain where you think the testing or design of this robo-insect should go from here.
  • The first design was called a “robobee” because of the size, flight, and perching ability of the robot. Based on its abilities, what do you think should the team name this new robot?

Activity Suggestions

  • Create an engineering challenge that requires teams to create a design with dual purpose and a design weight limit. For example, alter a bridge building competition so that the bridge must hold the maximum mass while spanning open space AND be able to float with a similar mass. Have testing and discussion of materials they are thinking of using before students create a blueprint (drawing and plan) for their design.
  • Using the 2012 $10 robotics challenge issued by the African Robotics Network as inspiration, have students design robots that can be used to teach students robotics for less than $10. Here is another article on the challenge.

Additional Resources

Before Robobees could swim, they could perch.

How do you program a robot to build without a blueprint? These researchers looked at termites.

Vocabulary: engineering, robots, bio-inspired, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, mechanism

Next Generation Science Standards: PS1.A: Structures and Properties of MatterETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting an Engineering ProblemSEP1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems, and CCC6: Structure and FunctionCan be used to build towards MS-PS1–1MS-PS1–5, and MS-ETS1–1.

Xochitl Garcia @msxgarcia -Education program assistant @scifri and 2015 #grosvenorteacherfellow @NatGeoEducation. #STEM Educator obsessed with food and board games.

Science Friday Spoonfuls @scifri ‏ - The latest and greatest science news from public radio’s Science Friday, ready for classroom use.