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 who humbly studies biology for inspiration. These pages are mainly about my research.

How can you create a fully autonomous flying robot as small as a fly? I am working to solve this problem by combining robot engineering with experimental study on flies. Insect-sized robots will be deployed where their small size and maneuverability give them an advantage over current, larger robots. For example, low materials cost could enable swarms that target insect pests in agriculture or perform detailed environmental monitoring. However, miniaturization poses challenges because scaling physics dictates that many conventional approaches used in larger aircraft, from electric motors and fixed wings, to GPS sensing and general-purpose microprocessors, cannot operate effectively. Flying insects have overcome these challenges by using scale-appropriate design, sensing, control, and navigation strategies, enabling aerial feats such as alighting on flowers buffeted by wind. These animals point the way toward future insect robots that can adeptly fly through complex, uncertain environments. The severe size, weight, and power constraints and unique physics of flight at this scale will require unconventional, insect-inspired solutions. My ultimate aim is to use these to drive innovation across engineering, resulting in more robust and dynamic robots and autonomous systems with wider practical application, and greater insight into the operation of the brain.

Below are some highlights from my work. Outside of this area, I have also helped build a frog-inspired hopping rover for interplanetary exploration for NASA with Paolo Fiorini and Joel Burdick and an ink-jet printer that can pattern nerve cells with Sebastian Seung and Shuguang Zhang at MIT. I also built the first ink-jet printer capable of fabricating electronic circuits and and 3D metal machines with Joseph Jacobson, inventor of E-ink electronic paper in the Amazon Kindle. I also have pages about past engineering projects and art.

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. This enabled the first flights at this scale stabilized using feedback only from sensors carried onboard. Without it the robot quickly tumbles because of dynamic instability.
Fuller, Karpelson, Censi, Ma, and Wood, J. Royal Society Interface, June 2014.
[PDF | video | Press: The Scientist Motherboard Science News]
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 | Press: Phys.org RedOrbit, Caltech News, 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.
[video | Press: Wired New York Times Economist]
biomimetic antenna robot ink-jet printed MEMS
Biomimetic wind sensing
A flight-weight sensor (yellow appendage at right) measures airspeed on a fly-sized flapping-wing robot, with Andreas Haggerty.
Fuller, Sands, Haggerty, Karpelson, Ma, and Wood, Int. Conf. on Robotics and Automation, 2013. [PDF]
Computation-limited visual motion control
Without GPS, tiny aerial vehicles will use vision to navigate confined spaces. Yet vision is typically computation intensive. We showed how a hovercraft robot can visually navigate a narrow corridor using only 20,000 multiply operations per second, compatible with the 10 mW avionics power budget of a fly-sized robot.
Fuller and Murray, Int. Conf. on Robotics and Biomimetics, 2011. [PDF | video]
Ink-jet fabricated micro-machines
I developed the first ink-jet printer capable of building of metal machines. Using a nanoparticle ink, I printed electrostatic motors (above, tip of a mechanical pencil shown for scale), cantilever actuators with hundreds of layers, and a high-conductivity resonant electric coil.
Fuller, Wilhelm, and Jacobson, J. Micro-electromechanical Systems, 2002. [PDF | video | Press: MIT Technology Review (cover)]

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 riding my bike. I play soccer and ultimate frisbee, and sometimes I make art. And when I get a chance I love being in the water, whether it's charging deep into the barrel (that is, surfing), sailing, windsurfing, or kayaking.

Relation to R. Buckminster Fuller

Richard Buckminster Fuller was an architect, mathematician, entrepreneur, and author (and Harvard dropout). Both the 60-carbon "Buckminsterfullerene" molecule and I were named after him, but neither of us has any known relation to him. Buckminsterfullerene was discovered after his death and was named because of its resemblance to his geodesic dome. But Fuller and I were alive at the same time, so you can judge for yourself if there's any resemblance in this picture : ).

My favorite part about Buckminster Fuller was how much emphasis he put on thinking orthogonally to convention. He questioned why buildings had to be square, for example. His suggestion was to instead rely on the intrinsic strength of triangles and efficiently enclose space with spheres like the geodesic dome. But his main concern was poverty. He believed that technology was advanced enough that the cost of being poor should not be a lack of basic needs like food, water, or medicine. That so many still did not have these essentials, including his own daughter who died at a young age, indicated that radical thinking was required. He believed the solution lay in a combination of entrepreneurship, commerce, and focus on environmental sustainability, and promoted his ideas vigorously. This led to a saying by idealistic youth in the 60's and 70's, perhaps echoed by my parents, to "never trust anyone over 30 -- except Bucky." His writing can be opaque, so I've been watching his videos on Youtube.


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