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MIT has developed insect-sized drones with unprecedented dexterity and resilience. The aerial robots are powered by a new class of soft actuator that allows them to withstand the physical travails of real-world flight.

The soft actuators are made of thin rubber cylinders coated in carbon nanotubes. When voltage is applied to the carbon nanotubes, they produce an electrostatic force that squeezes and elongates the rubber cylinder. Repeated elongation and contraction cause the drone’s wings to beat nearly 500 times per second. The drone weighs just 0.6 grams, approximately the mass of a large bumble bee.

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