RoboFly Is the First Wireless Insectoid Robot to Take Flight

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Drones come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but very small flying robots are hard to make for a variety of reasons. Still, swarms of little, cheap robots could be ideal for tasks like environmental surveys or hunting down gas leaks. Power usage is a concern with tiny robots, but we’re one step closer today. A team of engineers from the University of Washington has developed the first insectoid robot that can take flight without a power cable. It doesn’t fly for long, but it’s a cool proof of concept.

Most drones use propellers because they’re efficient and afford excellent maneuverability. However, propellers lose effectiveness at a certain point as you miniaturize them. If you want an insect-sized flying robot, an insect-like style of flight might be the best option from a physics standpoint. Flapping wings use more energy, though, and batteries are too heavy for insect-sized robots to carry. What’s a determined engineer to do? Some past attempts used a hardline power source to prove that winged micro-drones were possible. The UW team decided to use lasers to get rid of the wires.

The aptly named RoboFly has a small photoelectric panel atop a long wire extending from the device’s main circuit board. The researchers need only shine a laser on the cell, and the robot has enough power to flap its wings. Diffuse lighting, even in bright outdoor conditions, would not be enough to power the robot with such a small panel. The laser delivers a total of seven volts to the robot, but that’s not enough to power flight, either. The team designed a circuit board with a boost converter that can increase the output to 240 volts for a short time to flap the wings.

Everything about the RobotFly is designed to be as light as possible — it weighs about as much as a toothpick. The entire “brain” and power system are packed onto a single flexible circuit board. It has a dedicated microcontroller to operate the wings by sending pulses down at the top of each flap.

The RoboFly can indeed take off and land, but it only works when the small photovoltaic panel is in the path of the laser. As you can see in the video, that only lasts for a split second. Shortly after it lifts off, the robot loses power and lands. The team hopes that future versions of the RoboFly will include an adjustable laser power system, allowing the robot to fly freely.

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