My favorite coffee house at Harvard
Sawyer Buckminster Fuller
Feedback and motion control in robotics and the brain

flies flying robobee biomimetic antenna
Flies sense wind to stabilize flight
We recorded the flight trajectories of flies subject to impulsive gusts of wind using cameras. The results revealed a multi-sensory mechanism to regulate groundspeed in flight, combining feedback from vision and airspeed-sensing antennae. With Andrew Straw. (Fuller, et. al., Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., April 1, 2014. Caltech press release, PNAS featured image
Free-flight of a fly-sized robot
Controlled hover and flight maneuvers by an 80 mg flapping-wing robot, with Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon (U.S. Quarter shown for scale) (2013 paper in Science)
Biomimetic wind sensing
Flight-weight sensor measures flight velocity on a fly-sized flapping-wing robot, with Andreas Haggerty (U.S. quarter shown for scale) (2013 paper in ICRA)
robot ink-jet printed MEMS
Insect-inspired visual motion control
Controlling inertial, fly-like dynamics using fans and a small number of visual sensors (video, 2011 paper in ROBIO)
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) (paper in JMEMS).

Thanks for visiting! I am an engineer and I humbly study biology for engineering inspiration. These pages are mainly about my research, which is about how insects move and applying the findings to insect-sized robot motion control.

One project is to develop sensors and control systems targeted at small vehicles such as the Harvard Robobee, an insect-sized vehicle that can flap its wings to take off and fly. This vehicle is so small that many conventional technologies, from electric motors to fixed wings to GPS sensing, do not operate effectively because of its small size. This represents an opportunity to invent new technologies.

A second project is to understand how flies fly using their tiny brains, which is not well understood. Flies are among the most agile flying animals on Earth, as anybody who has tried to swat one with a flyswatter can attest. One open question is how they combine feedback from multiple senses, such as their eyes and antennae. These senses are required to fly in confined, windy environments such as the forest canopy. Using a free-flight fly tracker developed by Andrew Straw from open-source tools when he was in the Dickinson Lab at Caltech, I built an apparatus to apply wind and visual stimuli to Drosophila fruit flies while their position was recorded in realtime. Observing their responses, I found a model that explains how their dynamic behavior, from sensory input to changes in wing kinematics, leads to stable flight. The findings could lead to more robust and dynamic robots as well a better understanding of how the brain controls motion.

The biology/engineering cross-training has also lead to a frog-inspired hopping rover for interplanetary exploration for NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and an ink-jet printer that can make patterns of nerve cells to study the nature of neural computation. I also invented a printer for desktop fabrication of circuits and and 3-D microscopic machines in the lab that invented E-ink electronic paper. Please see my art, engineering, or photos pages for more.

Education (CV)

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. My hobbies include painting and 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