Focus-Science and Technology - - Innovations -

Cre­at­ing tiny fly­ing ro­bot in­sects is a harder task than you’d imag­ine; they’re too small to carry pro­pel­lers and the elec­tron­ics they need for power weigh them down. But en­gi­neers at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton have suc­cess­fully flown their first wire­less ro­bot fly.

The RoboFly uses tiny wings to take off and stay aloft, which is where it runs into prob­lems. Wing flap­ping is an en­ergy-in­ten­sive process and bat­ter­ies are heavy. So in­stead, the en­gi­neers power the tiny ro­bot by point­ing an in­vis­i­ble laser beam at a pho­to­voltaic cell at­tached to the RoboFly, which con­verts laser light into en­ergy.

“It was the most ef­fi­cient way to quickly trans­mit a lot of power to RoboFly with­out adding much weight,” said co-creator Shyam Gol­lakota, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Paul G Allen School of Com­puter Sci­ence and En­gi­neer­ing.

The laser alone doesn’t pro­vide enough en­ergy for lift-off though, so the team in­stalled a cir­cuit that boosts the en­ergy com­ing from the pho­to­voltaic cell. They also added a brain, a mi­cro­con­troller that ad­justs the rate at which the wings flap.

Right now the RoboFly can only take off and land, but re­searchers hope this in­ven­tion will pave the way for more use­ful RoboFlies. “I’d like to make one that finds meth­ane leaks,” said co-creator Sawyer Fuller, of the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton’s De­part­ment of Me­chan­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing. “You could buy a suit­case full of them, open it up, and they’d fly around your build­ing look­ing for gas com­ing out of leaky pipes. If these ro­bots can make it easy to find leaks, the leaks are 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.”

Power and lift are the flies in the oint­ment when it comes to build­ing ro­botic in­sects

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