Robotic insect powered by laser beam takes flight

Engineers at the University of Washington have created an insect-sized robot powered by laser beam. According to the team who created it, RoboFly and miniature drones like it, could help with time-consuming tasks like surveying crop growth on farms and detecting gas leaks.

RoboFly in an engineer's hand

RoboFly is slightly heavier than a toothpick. Photo: University of Washington

Cheaper to make and small enough to slip into tighter spots than drones, robotic insects have hundreds of useful applications if only engineers knew how to give them wings. Too small for propellers, and too light for the electronics required to power their wings, robotic insects have remained thoroughly grounded…at least until now.

Slightly heavier than a toothpick, RoboFly is the first robo-insect ever to take flight thanks to technology developed by a team of mechanical engineers at the University of Washington.  Their solution to the power problem is to use laser technology. To power RoboFly, a laser beam is pointed at a photovoltaic cell, attached above the device, which converts the laser energy into enough electricity to operate its wings via a tiny onboard circuit.

“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.

By adding a microcontroller to the circuit, the engineers also gave RoboFly a brain, allowing it take its first independent flaps. According the university’s report, the controller sends voltage in waves to mimic the fluttering of a real insect’s wings.

“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.’”

For now, RoboFly can only take off and land. Once its photovoltaic cell is out of the direct line of sight of the laser, the robot runs out of power and lands. However the team hopes to soon be able to steer the laser so that RoboFly can hover and fly around, the report said.

Future RoboFlies can also look forward to more advanced brains and sensor systems that help the robots navigate and complete tasks on their own, Fuller said.

“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.”

“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,” co-author of the project and assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering, Sawyer Fuller, said. “Our new wireless RoboFly shows they’re much closer to real life.”

The team will present its findings on 23 May 2018 at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia.

Source: University of Washington

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