Developing insect-scale robots Meet Daniel Drew

Daniel Drew, Ph.D., didn’t always think that a career in academic research was for him.

As a first-generation college student, Drew initially struggled to engage with his studies. Though he began as a business major, he switched to engineering his sophomore year. However, he continued to feel unfulfilled in his scholarly ambitions. It wasn’t until he participated in a summer research program that Drew realized academic research offered a way for him to creatively explore the frontiers of science.

Developing insect-scale robots

Daniel Drew, Ph.D., conducted research contributing to the development of insect-scale robots as part of the Intelligence Community (IC) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program. Photo Credit: Emily Marron, University of Utah

After this epiphany, Drew dove headfirst into academic research during his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. When he heard about the Intelligence Community (IC) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program at the end of graduate school, Drew knew it was the perfect fit for him and his career.

The IC Postdoc Program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). The program offers scientists and engineers from a wide variety of disciplines unique opportunities to conduct research relevant to the Intelligence Community.

Drew conducted his fellowship as part of the SHAPE Lab at Stanford University. Under the guidance of his research advisor Sean Follmer, Assistant Professor, Drew conducted research focusing on the development of insect-scale robots. Drew’s project specifically seeks to overcome the resource limitations inherent at the micro-robot scale, while also ensuring that solutions are scalable to a future of ubiquitous robots.

Mobility poses one of the core challenge for new microbot platforms, as the performance of traditional robotic actuation methods begins to suffer at smaller scales. The bulk of Drew’s research focused on developing a new propulsion mechanism for insect-scale flying robots, electrohydrodynamic (EHD) thrust, which collides accelerated ions with neutral air to produce force. This mechanism is silent, has no mechanical moving parts and is simple to use for controlled flight.

Beyond mobility, another challenge posed by insect-scale robots is the constraints of payload mass and energy budget, which does not support much functionality.

“In nature, similar constraints have been overcome with not just high-performance components, but also clever multi-functional integration—in other words, getting more done with less by viewing system composition holistically,” said Drew.

An example of holistic system composition found in nature is the phenomenon known as “stridulation,” where insects use passive mechanical structures on their bodies to produce acoustic signals for communication. A well-known example of stridulation is the chirping of crickets. Using these naturally occurring examples of holistic system composition as inspiration, Drew developed bio-inspired low-overhead acoustic communication and sensing mechanisms for robots ranging from the insect to the human scale.

Drew’s research supports the dream of the “internet of everything,” which aims to connect the entire world with the means to gather data and take action. According to Drew, achieving this dream requires moving beyond everyday appliances and technology and into a huge variety of spaces, in many of which traditional approaches for deploying compute nodes become either physically or economically infeasible.

“The natural world provides a blueprint for success here,” explained Drew.

“Insects are ubiquitous and have evolved to prosper in every possible domain, from the remotest desert to the human-built environment. Designing cheap, numerous, insect-scale robots will allow us to instrument the world around us in order to make and enact data-driven policy decisions that benefit humanity.”

Throughout his fellowship, Drew developed many new skills crucial to his future career.

“The most critical new skill I gained was translating the shift in perspective, from researcher of a project to investigator of a field, into driving a research agenda and finding funding opportunities,” he said.

Drew also wholeheartedly recommends the IC Postdoc Program to aspiring STEM researchers, citing its many benefits and flexibility as reasons to apply.

“The program is financially generous, allows for a great deal of freedom in pursuit of research and has set me up with professional connections in the national defense and intelligence sectors that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Drew. “My favorite parts were getting to learn from a new faculty mentor and getting matched with an engaged and supportive external mentor.”

In fall 2021, Drew joined the University of Utah’s department of Electrical and Computer Engineering as an Assistant Professor. He is one of the first members of the department with a research focus on robotics, and is looking forward to using the skills he gained from his fellowship to bridge the worlds of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and design.

The IC Postdoc Research Fellowship Program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU. For more information about the IC Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program, please visit https://orise.orau.gov/icpostdoc/.