PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Washington State University is buzzing after researchers created a robotic bee that can fly fully in all directions. 

Researchers have been trying to develop artificial flying insects for 30 years and this robot, known as the Bee++ prototype, is the first of its kind to be able to fly stably in all directions. It fully achieves the six degrees of free movement that a typical flying insect can do, the university said. 

The Bee++ weighs 95 mg and has a 33-millimeter wingspan, making it bigger than real bees, which weigh around 10 mg. It can only fly autonomously for about 5 minutes. Otherwise, it must remain tethered to a cable to power it. 

Researchers say robotic flying insects could be used for many things, including artificial pollination, search and rescue efforts in tight spaces, biological research, or monitoring hostile environments. 

Néstor Pérez-Arancibia, an associate professor at WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, led the research and published a report on the team’s work in IEEE Transactions on Robotics

He says getting the tiny robots to take off and land required researchers to develop controllers that act the way an insect brain does. 

“It’s a mixture of robotic design and control,” Pérez-Arancibia said. “Control is highly mathematical, and you design a sort of artificial brain. Some people call it the hidden technology, but without those simple brains, nothing would work.”

Initially, researchers developed a two-winged robotic bee, but found the two wings limited its movement. The four-winged robot was developed in 2019 and was light enough to take off. 

With the four-wing design, developers made the front wings flap in a different way than the back wings to allow for pitching, rolling and the complex twisting motion known as yaw. 

“If you can’t control yaw, you’re super limited,” Pérez-Arancibia said. “If you’re a bee, here is the flower, but if you can’t control the yaw, you are spinning all the time as you try to get there.” 

Researchers studied the wings of insects to come up with their design and the robot they created can flap its wings between 100 and 160 times per second. 

WSU researchers are working to develop other types of insect robots, including ones that crawl and ones that can stride across water.