This tiny wasp-inspired drone can pull 40 times its own weight

This tiny robot may look unassuming, but even at a mere 100 grams—about as heavy as a bar of soap—the FlyCroTug can pull up to 40 times its own weight, according to a new study.

To create FlyCroTug—named for its flying, micro, tugging features—researchers took a cue from wasps. Typically, these insects use their stinger to subdue prey before transporting it back to their nest. If the prey is too heavy to fly with, some wasps plant their feet on the ground and pull their prey home. Similarly, when a payload is too heavy for flight—anything bigger than the robot itself—the FlyCroTug stays on terra firma, where it uses adhesives and tiny metal hooks called microspines to stick to a surface, and a powerful tether to tug on an object.

Researchers demonstrated the FlyCroTug’s capabilities by anchoring it atop a partially collapsed building and having it haul up a bulky set of sensors to inspect small openings in the rubble. FlyCroTugs can also work together to open doors; one pulls the handle downward while sticking to the door itself, and another pulls the door open while anchored to the ground, the team reports today in Science Robotics.

FlyCroTug’s unprecedented strength gives it an advantage over other miniature drones, which—because of their size—can typically only survey their environment instead of actually interacting with it. That could make this new class of robots useful in everything from planting sensors in hard-to-reach spots in tall buildings and bridges, to removing debris in disaster zones.