Using robot models could play a useful role in studying the origins of flight, particularly since fossil evidence is so limited, noted engineers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Researchers outfitted a six-legged robotic bug with wings in an effort to improve its mobility. Even though the wings significantly improved the running performance of the 10-centimeter-long robot — called DASH, short for Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod — they found that the extra boost would not have generated enough speed to launch the critter from the ground. The wing flapping also enhanced the aerial performance of the robot, consistent with the hypothesis that flight originated in gliding tree-dwellers.

First unveiled by Fearing and graduate student Paul Birkmeyer in 2009, DASH is a lightweight, speedy robot made of inexpensive, off-the-shelf materials, including compliant fiber board with legs driven by a battery-powered motor. Its small size makes it a candidate for deployment in areas too cramped or dangerous for humans to enter, such as collapsed buildings.

Among other robotic insects being tested in the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab is a winged, bipedal robot called BOLT (Bipedal Ornithopter for Locomotion Transitioning) that more closely resembles the size and aerodynamics of precursors to flying birds and insects.

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Also: Learn more about robotic microflyers .