Ahead of the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia, a group of engineers from the University of Washington have announced something that might have tongues wagging at the conference.

They are releasing a study they have conducted that will show the feasibility of wireless, flying, robot insects.

Looking like something out of the film ‘Eye in the Sky’ the engineers have created the world’s first wireless flying robot insect. The engineers have said this is “one small flap for a robot” and “one giant leap for robot-kind”.

The video they have released shows the robot flapping its wings quicker than the eye can see. When slowed down, the robot’s wings look eerily similar to that of a fly’s wings. And have aptly dubbed the robot, ‘RoboFly’.

How it flies

The methodology behind how it flies (how it is powered) is impressive. The engineers have devised a scheme whereby a laser beam is pointed at a photovoltaic cell positioned on the fly’s back.

The assistant professor who co-authored the study, Sawyer Fuller, works in the University of Washington’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. He said:

Source: University of Washington

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

Enlisting the expertise of the Electrical Engineering department at UW, the robot utilizes a specially designed circuit that takes the current being produced by the laser beam and the photovoltaic cell, and amplifies it from seven volts to 240 volts. From there, flight ensues.

Johannes James, the lead author, explains how the wings use all of the produced energy:

“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.”

Refining how the fly uses its wings will be the main focus going forward. Because of its size, the robot is unable to use any other method of levitating - the wings are its only low-weight solution. Nonetheless, the progress that the University of Washington’s engineers have made is impressive. Sawyer Fuller says:

“You could buy a suitcase of them, open it up, and they would fly around your building looking for plumes of gas coming out of leaky pipes. 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.”

Developing these kinds of robots is important work. Insect robots can fly into areas where humans are not able to go - into radiation zones, for example. But there is also a worry that insect robots might be used by intelligence agencies for the undetected surveillance of people.

Works Cited
Grossman, David. “Watch a Laser-Powered Robotic Fly Take Its First Flight.” Popular Mechanics, Popular Mechanics, 16 May 2018, www.popularmechanics.com/technology/robots/a20717355/robotic-laser-fly/.
“Wireless Robot Fly Undertakes First Independent Flight.” Interesting Engineering, 17 May 2018, interestingengineering.com/wireless-robot-fly-undertakes-first-independent-flight.