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Why Scientists Aim To Make A Drone Nearly As Small As A Mosquito

(SOUNDBITE OF MOSQUITO BUZZING)

NOEL KING, HOST:

The reason it is so hard to kill a mosquito is that they move really well. Scientists are trying to build a robot with that kind of agility.

KEVIN CHEN: I spend a lot of time looking at the flapping wing physics - that is, understanding how an insect can flap their wings and generate lift and drag forces.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Kevin Chen is an assistant professor at MIT. He leads a team that has invented a new microdrone not quite as tiny as a mosquito.

CHEN: The weight of this robot and the physical size looks pretty much like a dragonfly.

KING: But like a dragonfly, it is really resilient. It has a soft, muscular mechanism called an actuator that powers the wings for flight.

CHEN: Even though I will crash (ph) I'll land, right? Or it may run into a ceiling. Or it can run into a war. The rigid robot have a very hard time trying to dealing with those collisions, whereas because our soft power robot is very robust, of course, we can do interesting maneuvers, such as doing a somersault. We can survive collisions and et cetera.

INSKEEP: Doing somersaults. Mr. Chen envisions a time when his insect-sized drone could be used as a search-and-rescue robot to find survivors in disaster debris that bigger drones couldn't reach.

CHEN: For example, if you think about the scenario in which we have, you know, building collapsed, people have been trapped inside of that building. How do we do a search-and-rescue task to figure out where are the people being trapped under the building?

KING: Enter the insect drone.

CHEN: Hopefully they can see the person now who was trapped inside and then correctly send information back so we have a good idea about where the person is trapped.

KING: Would be small but mighty. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.