ROBOFLY TAKES OFF
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