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.

One area of interest is the sensors and control systems for small vehicles such as the Harvard Robobee. This vehicle is a fly-sized robot that can flap its wings to take off and fly. It is so small that many conventional technologies, such as electric motors, fixed wings, GPS sensing, and general-purpose microprocessors do not operate effectively. Physical scaling makes them either inefficient or ineffective. Making this vehicle fly autonomously will require new approaches to solve these problems. A second project is to understand how flies fly using their tiny brains, a phenomenon that is not well understood. Flies are among the most agile flying animals on Earth, as anybody can attest who has tried to swat one with a flyswatter. They have a lot to teach us about how to perform high-speed motion control in complex environments. A better understanding will lead to more robust and dynamic robots as well a more complete explanation for how the brain controls motion.

The biology/engineering cross-training has also led to a frog-inspired hopping rover for interplanetary exploration for NASA and an ink-jet printer that can pattern nerve cells. I also gave an early demonstration of ink-jet fabricated electronic circuits and and 3-D machines while working in the lab that invented E-ink electronic paper. Below are some highlights. Please see my art, engineering, or photos pages for more.

robobee with ocelli flies flying robobee
Using insect-inspired vision to fly
A four-pixel sensor inspired by insect ocelli is mounted at the top of the vehicle. Without it, the vehicle quickly tumbles because of dynamic instability. The first flight a fly-sized robot 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 really like going places on my bike. Sometimes I'll play soccer or ultimate frisbee, paint, and when I can I rather like charging deep, that is, surfing.

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 in the intrinsic strength of triangles, though history has shown that this brings its own set of problems. But his main concern was poverty, believing that modern technology has given us sufficient wealth that a human standard of living should not be out of reach for anybody, and that we needed to think about environmental sustainability to achieve this. His book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth spells out some of these ideas. In the sixties, this led people like my parents to say "never trust anyone over 30 -- except Bucky." I got to meet him when I was about four (here is a picture).


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