This insect-sized wireless robot flies with help of lasers

A tiny, insect-like robot that operates without the need for an external power source has been developed by scientists.

Called RoboFly, the gadget is powered by a laser that activates an on-board circuit to flap its wings.

The researchers say bots like it could help with tasks like inspecting crops or detecting gas leaks.

Dr Sawyer Fuller, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and co-author of the study, said: “Before now, the concept of wireless insect-sized flying robots was science fiction.

“Our new wireless RoboFly shows they’re much closer to real life.”

The bot, which resembles a dragonfly, is described as “slightly heavier than a toothpick” and “larger than a real fly”.

It uses an invisible laser beam that points towards a photovoltaic cell, converting the light energy from the laser into electricity.

The new invention appears to be an upgrade from Dr Fuller and his team’s previous prototype gadget called the RoboBee, which had to be tethered to its power source with wires.

Engineers pointed an invisible laser beam at a photovoltaic cell to power RoboFly (Mark Stone/University of Washington/PA)

The team said their big challenge was to find a way to make RoboFly wireless – which ultimately led them to focus on lasers for power with a circuit board containing a boost converter to generate 240 volts needed for flight.

Dr Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, said: “It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight.”

The engineering team also added a “brain” to the bot in the form of a tiny microcontroller that sends voltage in waves to mimic the fluttering of a real insect’s wings.

Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the University of Washington’s Department of Electrical Engineering, said: “The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain telling wing muscles when to fire.

A flexible circuit with a boost converter gives RoboFly the energy to fly (Mark Stone/University of Washington/PA)

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

Although RoboFly can only take off and land at the moment, the team hopes it will soon be able to control the robot’s navigation and complete tasks in areas where drones are too big to be deployed.

Dr Fuller 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.

RoboFly is slightly larger than a real fly (Mark Stone/University of Washington/PA)

“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.”

The findings are being presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia.

- Press Association

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