NIFTI PI Sawyer Fuller and his team have created what is to date the world’s lightest wireless flying robot. Weighing in at 190 mg, “RoboFly” is only slightly larger than an actual fly. The team also includes Vikram Iyer, Johannes James, Shyam Gollakota, and NIFTI graduate student Yogesh Chukewad. See the research paper here.
Currently, insect-sized flying machines need to be tethered in order to deliver the power required for flight (check out Fuller’s “RoboBee“). In order to circumvent this issue, RoboFly is powered by a laser beam using a photovoltaic cell. An on-board circuit boosts the seven volts generated by the cell to the 240 necessary to power the wings. The circuit also contains a microcontroller which controls the movement of the wings. “The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain telling wing muscles when to fire,” according to Vikram Iyer.
In the future, autonomous roboinsects could be used to complete tasks such as surveying crop growth or detecting gas leaks. “I’d really like to make one that finds methane leaks,” says Fuller. “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. 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.”
At the moment, RoboFly is only capable of taking off and landing, as there is no way for the laser beam to track the robot’s movement; but the team hopes to soon be able to steer the laser and allow the machine to hover and fly. Shyam Gollakota says that future versions could use tiny batteries or harvest energy from radio frequency signals. That way, their power source can be modified for specific tasks.
See a video below of the RoboFly in action!
RoboFly has received extensive publicity, see coverage by WIRED, The Economist, IEEE Spectrum, MIT Tech Review, TechCrunch, Discover Magazine, GeekWire, Popular Mechanics, Engadget, CNET, Digital Trends, Siliconrepublic, and SlashGear.