Meet the Robofly: Wireless insect powered by lasers takes flight


A radical laser powered robot fly the size of a toothpick could soon revolutionize everything from disaster recovery to sniffing out gas leaks

Though insect-sized flying robots have been around for a while, none had been able to take untethered fight until now.

Engineers at the University of Washington have revealed the RoboFly had taken its first untethered flaps, earlier this year, marking the first time a wireless flying robotic insect has flown.

Now the man behind the project has revealed he hopes to have fully autonomous swarms roaming the skies within five years.  

RoboFly is only slightly heavier than a toothpick and is powered by an onboard circuit that converts the laser energy into enough electricity to operate its wings.

Previously, the electronics the insects carried to power and control their wings were too heavy for the robots to fly with, meaning they had to remain connected to a wire. 

‘Before now, the concept of wireless insect-sized flying robots was science fiction. Would we ever be able to make them work without needing a wire?’ said co-author Sawyer Fuller, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering. 

‘Our new wireless RoboFly shows they’re much closer to real life.’

 Fuller told CNBC the team hopes to soon be able to steer the laser so that RoboFly can hover and fly around.

They are currently working on more advanced brains and sensor systems to help the robots navigate and complete tasks on their own, Fuller said.

“For full autonomous I would say we are about five years off probably,” he said.

Insect-sized flying robots could be used for time-consuming tasks like surveying crop growth on large farms or sniffing out gas leaks.

‘I’d really like to make one that finds methane leaks,’ he said. 

‘You could buy a suitcase full of them, open it up, and they would fly around your building looking for plumes of gas coming out of leaky pipes.’

‘If these robots can make it easy to find leaks, they will be much more likely to be patched up, which will reduce greenhouse emissions. 

‘This is inspired by real flies, which are really good at flying around looking for smelly things. So we think this is a good application for our RoboFly,’ Fuller continued. 

They could also help in life-saving search and rescue missions.  

The robots fly by fluttering tiny wings because they are too small to use propellers. 

However, their small size is advantageous as these robots are cheap to make and can easily slip into tight places that are inaccessible to big drones.

Fuller had previously developed the RoboBee, which had a leash that allowed it to receive power and control through wires from the ground.

It uses a narrow invisible laser beam to power their robot. They pointed the laser beam at a photovoltaic cell, which is attached above RoboFly and converts the laser light into electricity.

‘It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,’ said co-author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

Right now, RoboFly can only take off and land, but the team soon hopes that they will be able to move the laser to steer the robotic insect around.  

The laser alone does not provide enough voltage to move the wings, so the team designed a circuit that boosted the seven volts coming out of the photovoltaic cell up to the 240 volts needed for flight.

To give RoboFly control over its own wings, the engineers added a microcontroller to the same circuit.

‘The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain telling wing muscles when to fire,’ said co-author Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering. ‘On RoboFly, it tells the wings things like “flap hard now” or “don’t flap.”‘


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