Electrical Engineer; 2014 Emerging Explorer
Photograph by Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard Microrobotics Lab
Photograph by Eliza Grinnell
Electrical engineer Robert Wood is an expert in robots that fly, robots you wear, squishy robots, and tiny robots the size of a nickel. He founded the Microrobotics Lab at Harvard University, where he leads a team that invents and develops entirely new classes of microrobots and robots made of soft materials that may one day play a transformative role in medicine, search-and-rescue missions, and agriculture. For years, the team has focused on creating autonomous flying microrobots called RoboBees that could be sent on missions deemed too dangerous, remote, or tedious for humans or animals. The machines have a housefly-size thorax, three-centimeter wingspan, and a weight of 60 milligrams. The latest prototype flaps wings 120 times a second, hovers, and flies along preordained paths. In the field of soft robotics, the lab invents new materials and embodies them with electrical or mechanical functionality so that they can safely interact with humans. For example, his team has created sensors and actuators for applications in rehabilitation and human-robot interactions that are as soft as skin.
Where were you born?
Upstate New York
Where do you currently live?
How did you get started in your field of work?
I have always been a tinkerer and fascinated with the idea of robots. I received my first "robot" when I was five years old—and I still have it in my lab. My dedication is due primarily to two factors: first, the promise of robotics and automation to improve our lives—from new biomedical tools to automated manufacturing to robots that explore our world and beyond. Second, there is a tremendous opportunity for robotics to impact education. I believe the tangible nature and "cool" factor of robotics can be used to excite students of all ages to explore careers in science and engineering.
What has been your most rewarding or memorable experience in your field?
The most rewarding part of my job is the creation of something new and unique. Most often this is something you have been working on for years that finally comes to fruition. But even more rewarding are the (rare) times that you discover something you weren't looking for. For example, we set out to build novel robots and along the way we sometimes create new sensors or artificial muscles or even new ways of making robots and other complex devices.
What's a normal work day like for you?
Get in to the lab and start building robots and interacting with students. We have lots of brainstorming sessions. I strive to promote a highly creative and collaborative environment.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Be patient and be methodical. It's fun to build things, but it's even more fun to build something that works!
In Their Words
There are no standard solutions for creating robots like this. Inventing them from completely new materials and on totally new scales generates a world of novel questions.