My favorite coffee house at Harvard
Sawyer Buckminster Fuller
Motion control in tiny flying robots and insects

Thanks for visiting! I am a roboticist and a bioengineer that humbly studies biology for inspiration. These pages are mainly about my research.

How can you make a fully autonomous flying robot as small as a fly? I am working to solve this problem with a two-pronged approach that combines robot engineering with experimental study on flies. A key challenge is that many traditional technologies used in larger aircraft, from electric motors and fixed wings, to GPS sensing and general-purpose microprocessors, do not operate effectively at small scales. The physics of scaling makes them either inefficient or ineffective. This represents an opportunity to re-think almost everything about aircraft design. For inspiration, the flight apparatus flies has evolved for millions of years to find high-performance solutions at this scale, as anybody who has used a flyswatter can attest. These animals point the way toward future insect robots that can adeptly fly through complex, uncertain environments. My ultimate aim is to create more robust and dynamic robots at all scales, and to better understand the basic task of the brain, which is to control motion.

Recently, I have discovered how how flies incorporate airspeed sensing into their flight regulator, and demonstrated how to use flight-weight sensors to stabilize a fly-sized flapping-wing robot. Previous work includes a frog-inspired hopping rover for interplanetary exploration for NASA with Paolo Fiorini and an ink-jet printer that can pattern nerve cells with Sebastian Seung and Shuguang Zhang at MIT. I also built the first electronic circuits and and 3D metallic structures and machines fabricated using an ink-jet printer with Joseph Jacobson, who also invented the E-ink electronic paper in the Amazon Kindle. Below are some highlights. I also have pages devoted to art, and an older page about past engineering projects.

robobee with ocelli flies flying robobee
Using insect-inspired vision to fly
We mounted a four-pixel sensor inspired by insect ocelli to the top of a fly-sized flying robot. Without it, the vehicle quickly tumbles because of dynamic instability. The first flight at this scale using feedback only from sensors carried onboard. Fuller, Karpelson, Censi, Ma, and Wood, J. Royal Society Interface, June 2014.
[PDF | Press: The Scientist Motherboard Science News | video]
Flies sense wind to stabilize flight
We used cameras to record how flies respond to impulsive wind gusts while in flight. This revealed a multi-sensory mechanism to regulate groundspeed that combines vision and airspeed-sensing antennae.
Fuller, Straw, Peek, Murray, and Dickinson, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., April 2014.
[PDF | Caltech News | Caltech Homepage, PNAS Featured image]
Free-flight of a fly-sized robot
As aircraft scale diminishes to that of insects, new effects begin to dominate because of scaling physics. We developed unconventional, scale-appropriate fabrication, aerodynamics, actuation, and control technology to realize the first controlled flight of a vehicle the size of a fly.
Ma, Chirarattananon, Fuller, and Wood, Science, May 2013.
[Press: Wired New York Times Economist | video]
biomimetic antenna robot ink-jet printed MEMS
Biomimetic wind sensing
Flight-weight sensor (yellow appendage at right) measures flight velocity on a fly-sized flapping-wing robot, with Andreas Haggerty (U.S. quarter shown for scale) (Fuller et al, ICRA 2013.)
Insect-inspired visual motion control
Controlling inertial, fly-like dynamics using fans and a small number of visual sensors (video, Fuller and Murray, ROBIO 2011.)
Ink-jet fabricated Micro-electromechanical systems
Electrostatic motors, actuators, and an inductor fabricated using desktop printing technology (tip of a mechanical pencil shown for scale) (Fuller, Wilhelm, and Jacobson, JMEMS).

Education (Resume/curriculum vitae)

Biographical notes

I grew up mostly in Central California, graduating from Morro Bay High School. I have lived in Guatemala, Florida, Massachusetts, and Italy. My dad, boat builder Kirk Fuller, builds sailing catamarans and other vehicles that disdain conventional wisdom. My mom, Patrice Engle, was a professor of psychology and Senior Officer for Child Development at UNICEF where she worked on the science and policy of global child development. She passed away from non-smoking lung cancer in 2012.

When away from work, I like going places by bike. I play soccer and ultimate frisbee, I like drawing and painting, and when possible I like to charge deep into the barrel (that is, to surf).

Relation to R. Buckminster Fuller

He and I have no known relation, but I was named in honor of him. Richard Buckminster Fuller was an architect, mathematician, entrepreneur, and author (and Harvard dropout), and is the namesake of the Carbon-60 "Buckminsterfullerene" molecule that was discovered after his death. His approach to new problems was basically to think orthogonally to convention. He questioned why buildings had to be square, suggesting that instead they ought to rely on the intrinsic strength of triangles, though history has shown this brings its own set of problems. But his main concern was poverty, believing that technology was advanced enough that there was no reason there should be people without basic necessities. He championed environmental sustainability as an essential component of this improved standard of existence. There used to be a saying in the 60's and 70's, "never trust anyone over 30 -- except Bucky." I find his writing difficult to understand, so I've started watching videos of his talks online. Here is a picture of when I met him when I was four: link.


Miscellaneous links



Sawyer Buckminster Fuller
Harvard University
60 Oxford St. Rm. 407
Cambridge, MA 02138
Email: my harvard username is minster. The email format is username@seas.harvard.edu