University of Washington engineers have successfully created the first robot insect that can fly called the RoboFly. The new study will be revealed May 23 at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia.
The robot called the RoboFly can take off and land.
Researchers have long been working on developing tiny robots that can fly. However, since insect-sized robots are too small to house propellers used by drones, the robots would have to successfully flutter equally tiny wings.
Up to now, the electronics required for the tiny bots to achieve this were too heavy to allow early models to take flight. To overcome this obstacle, University of Washington engineers came up with an ingenious idea.
Science fiction comes to life
“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?” said the study’s co-author Sawyer Fuller, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering.
“Our new wireless RoboFly shows they’re much closer to real life," added Fuller. His team successfully powered their robotic insect by using a laser beam combined with an onboard circuit that turned the laser’s energy into electricity.
To achieve this, Fuller and his team began by pointing a laser beam at a photovoltaic cell attached above their robot. The voltage received was then amplified by a circuit designed by the team to increase the seven volts coming out of the cell to the 240 volts needed for flight.
Mimicking an insect's real wings
The team also used a microcontroller to send the voltage in waves recreating 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.
“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," explained Johannes James, the lead author and a mechanical engineering doctoral student.
Although a giant step for insect robots, the RoboFly can currently only take off and land. However, the team is looking into expanding RoboFly’s activities through a variety of options such as steering the laser, using batteries in future versions or getting energy from radio frequencies.
The team hopes to use these future robots in tasks that would require the insect machines to be autonomous. “I’d really like to make one that finds methane leaks,” Fuller 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," explained Fuller. "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."