Check out this tiny flying robot taking off for the first time

16 May 2018

The RoboFly. Image: Mark Stone/University of Washington

In the not-too-distant future, that fly you are attempting to swat away might actually be a flying robot insect.

Data-gathering drones are expected to be big business in the years to come, as Microsoft can attest to, but some engineers are looking even further down the line to create drones so small that they bear more resemblance to an insect than a robot.

The benefits of a flying robot insect seem quite obvious, given that there are some small, tight spaces that drones can’t reach.

However, existing robot insect designs have been forced to rely on a cable because the electronics needed are simply too big to allow it to fly.

But now, a new design is to be presented by a team from the University of Washington at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia, revealing a tiny, wireless flying robot called RoboFly.

Only slightly heavier than a toothpick, the robot’s power source comes from a tiny onboard circuit that converts a laser beam shined on the craft into electricity to operate its wings.

The biggest hurdle to overcome for the team is the act of flapping the RoboFly’s wings because it is a power-hungry process and, even with a direct laser beam, requires a boost.

That’s why the team designed a circuit that boosted the 7V coming out of the photovoltaic cell up to the 240V needed for flight. To enable it to have control over its own wings, the team added a microcontroller to the RoboFly’s circuit.

“The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain telling wing muscles when to fire,” said researcher Vikram Iyer.

“On RoboFly, it tells the wings things like ‘flap hard now’ or ‘don’t flap’.”

Laser beam powering RoboFly

To power RoboFly, the engineers pointed an invisible laser beam (shown here in red) at a photovoltaic cell, which is attached above the robot and converts the laser light into electricity. Image: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Possible uses

To mimic the fluttering of a real insect’s wings, a series of pulses are sent in rapid succession before slowing down as they near the top of the wave.

It can then do the reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction.

Right now, however, the design is limited to just being able to take off and land in the space of a second because once its photovoltaic cell is out of the direct line of sight of the laser, the robot runs out of power and lands.

In the future, the team hopes that a newer version could use tiny batteries or harvest energy from radio frequency signals.

Speaking of its potential, another one of the researchers, Shyam Gollakota, said: “I’d really like to make one that finds methane leaks. 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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic