Can A Fleet Of Tiny Flying Insects Change The World?

What if you could send in a fleet of tiny robotic insects that could survey crops or sniff out gas leaks and dangerous chemical spills?

That future might not be so far away. Engineers from the University of Washington have created a robotic flying insect called the RoboFly that can flap its own wings, take off and land untethered.

RoboFly is slightly heavier than a toothpick and has a small brain which is actually a microcontroller inside of a small circuit on its body. In order to power up the flying insect, the engineers placed a small photovoltaic cell above RoboFly’s body. When they point the laser beam at the cell, it gives off seven volts of power that get the wings moving.

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

“It uses pulses to shape the wave,” said Johannes James, the lead author, and mechanical engineering doctoral student. “To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave. And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction.”

The laser alone doesn’t 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. While RoboFly is currently powered by a laser beam, future versions could use tiny batteries or harvest energy from radio frequency signals, researchers say. This would let their power source be modified for specific tasks.

Another co-author of the paper, Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering said he would like to make a Robofly 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,” said Gollakota. “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,” added Gollakota.

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