Cicada's Prime Obsession & Robotic Bees: The Insect Issue

I can hear the buzzing already as the Cicadas crawl their way back after a 17 year hiatus.  Why 17, well it could be 13 as well but never 8 or 10.  These swarms only use prime numbers, which of course cause quite a stir in the math world. Glenn Webb of Vanderbilt University has been analyzing the prime connection for close to 13 years now, “to me it’s a little puzzle from evolution,” says Webb, who has devised a mathematical model of cicada behavior published his conclusion in 2001.  According to Webb the prime-number lifecycle is no coincidence, but evolved as an effort to avoid predators. Webb basis his research on Dr. Gould’ theory in 1977 that observed millions of bugs springing forth from the ground in prime rhythm to ensure that no single predator can devour them, a tactic that evolutionary biologists now call the “predator satiation” strategy.  Hence Gould states that by ’emerging every 13 or 17 years their infrequent invasions will sync with the life cycles of birds and other creatures that dine on them.’  Now you may ask, how does math and insects add up to robots? For that answer we go to Harvard Yard to see the world’s most smallest flying robot – RoboBee,

RoboBee weighs just under three thousandths of an ounce with a 3cm wingspan that is inspired by fruit flies and cicadas alike.  Researchers started with the principal of how to use tiny electromechanical components to sustain flight. As you can imagine the device’s size made traditional mechanisms like gears and pistons and silicon-based components useless.  Instead, the Harvard team developed its own techniques to produce microscopic electromechanical components, called smart composite microstructures (SCMs) from strong ultra-light carbon composites. “It’s really only because of this lab’s recent breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials, and design, that we have even been able to try this.” one researcher noted. He later added, “This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years”.

The result is that RoboBee’s ethereally-thin wings beat an astonishing 120 times per second. To achieve this feat, a specially designed ceramic-based piezoelectric material was used. The substance expands and contracts when voltage is applied and removed, mimicking how a real muscle might work. As an added bonus, the system provides the pint-sized insectdroid with astonishing maneuverability — it can hover and make sudden changes in its position. A “fully flying wireless robot” is a just “few more years” away, researchers project.

Maybe by the next Cicada prime cycle a million RoboBees will be waiting to mate…

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