World’s lightest wireless flying robot created by NIFTI PI Sawyer Fuller’s team

Weighing in at 190 mg, “RoboFly” is only slightly larger than an actual fly. 

NIFTI PI Sawyer Fuller and his team have created what is to date the world’s lightest wireless flying robot.  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.

RoboFly’s flexible circuit. The copper coil and black boxes to the right comprise the boost converter, and the microcontroller is the small square box in the top right.

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.”

The Robofly team. Front row: Vikram Iyer (left) and Johannes James; back row (from left): Yogesh Chukewad, Sawyer Fuller, and Shyam Gollakota.

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 MagazineGeekWire, Popular Mechanics, Engadget, CNET, Digital TrendsSiliconrepublic, and SlashGear.

Steve Brunton, NIFTI PI, wins 2018 UW College of Engineering Award

Steve Brunton, winner of the 2018 UW College of Engineering Award for Junior Faculty.We are excited to announce that NIFTI faculty member Steve Brunton has won the 2018 UW College of Engineering Award for Junior Faculty!  The UW College of Engineering Awards “acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of the college’s teaching and research assistants, staff and faculty members.” Congratulations, Steve!

In 2017, Steve Brunton won the UW College of Engineering’s Faculty Award for Teaching.  He also recently won an AFOSR Young Investigator Award.

NIFTI PIs Bing Brunton and Steve Brunton win AFOSR Young Investigator Awards

AFOSR Young Investigator award winners Bing Brunton and Steve BruntonWe are extremely proud to announce that two NIFTI PIs from the University of Washington, Bing Brunton (UW Biology) and Steve Brunton (UW Mechanical Engineering) have each won an AFOSR Young Investigator Research Program Award! The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) Young Investigator Program recognizes those “who show exceptional ability and promise for conducting basic research”, and who have received Ph.D. or equivalent degrees in the last five years.

Bing’s awarded proposal was on “Sparse Sensing with Wing Mechanosensory Neurons for Estimation of Body Rotation in Flying Insects”. Steve’s winning proposal was on “Interpretable Nonlinear Models of Unsteady Flow Physics”. AFOSR Young Investigator Awards provide a 3-year grant totaling $450,000.

In addition to these prestigious awards from AFOSR, Bing was recently awarded a UW Innovation Award, and Steve won the 2017 UW College of Engineering’s Faculty Award for Teaching.

You can read more about the AFOSR Young Investigator awards on the AFOSR website. Bing’s award from AFOSR was also highlighted on the UW Biology website.

University of Washington Innovation Award won by two NIFTI PIs!

We are exceedingly proud to announce that two NIFTI faculty are recipients of a 2017 University of Washington Innovation Award!  The UW Innovation Awards “fuel the ideas that address problems of humanity while encouraging and celebrating creativity among faculty”.  The purpose of the awards is to “stimulate innovation among faculty from a range of disciplines and to reward some of their most terrific ideas.”

This year, four awards were given across the entire University of Washington, and two of the four awards went to projects involving NIFTI PIs!  Since the award’s inception in 2014, 13 faculty projects have received Innovation Awards totaling $3 million.  The NIFTI award winners this year were: Bing Brunton (as part of a team with non-NIFTI faculty David Gire) and Jeff Riffell.  Each of their awarded projects is described below.

ModuBing Brunton and David Gire, , winners of a 2017 University of Washington Innovation Awardlating complex natural behaviors in rodents with direct closed-loop control of neural systems

Bing Brunton, NIFTI PI, Assistant Professor, UW Biology
David Gire, Assistant Professor, UW Psychology

This project will characterize how networks of neurons in different brain areas interact while an animal solves a complex task.  To do this, Drs. Brunton and Gire will combine large-scale, high-density neural recordings with data-driven modeling.  Their goal is to understand the dynamic neural computations that support natural behaviors. This will also provide them the unique opportunity to directly manipulate brain activity and influence natural behavior.  They will be developing a closed-loop electronic system in collaboration with the non-profit Open Ephys.

They state: “The hardware and software platforms developed as part of this project will be shared as open-source resources for the wider neuroengineering community. This cutting-edge effort will illuminate our understanding of how coordinated brain activity supports ecologically important behaviors, as well as contribute a network-theoretic perspective of brain function and dysfunctions that manifest as neurological and mental disorders…This demonstration is an essential step towards implementing targeted bioelectronics therapies for a variety of major neurological and psychiatric disorders”.  Their project addresses these questions by leveraging the experimental neuroscience expertise of the Gire lab and novel computational approaches from the Brunton lab.

Jeff Riffell, winner of a 2017 University of Washington Innovation AwardGenerating mutant mosquitoes to identify the genetic and neural bases of human host-seeking behavior

Jeff Riffell, NIFTI Associate Professor, UW Biology

Mosquitos can carry a number of serious human diseases, including malaria, yellow fever, Zika, and West Nile virus.  Mosquitos locate hosts using their sensitive olfactory system, and many vary in their preference for individual humans or other hosts.  Prior experience with a host affects future host choices, and many mosquitos can change their host preference if necessary.  However, there is no information about the neural and genetic bases of these behaviors.

In this project, Dr. Riffell’s work with mosquitos will use “cutting-edge genetic manipulations and new neurophysiological recording methods to identify the genetic and olfactory bases of host preferences in mosquitos”.  Additionally, Dr. Riffell will investigate how learning modifies mosquito behavior in regards to host choice.  Ultimately, one goal of this work is to determine if there are possible genetic targets for mosquito control.

PNAS paper on sensory integration from lab of NIFTI Director Tom Daniel

Hawkmoth sensory integrationUniversity of Washington postdoctoral fellow Eatai Roth, working in the lab of NIFTI Director Tom Daniel, recently published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on how multiple types of sensory information are used by hawkmoths to govern flight behavior.  The paper, entitled “Integration of parallel mechanosensory and visual pathways resolved through sensory conflict”, describes work that investigated how moths combine sensory cues to follow the motion of wavering flowers while feeding.

While hovering in front of a flower, a feeding moth receives information about how the flower is moving from two sensory modalities: visual information from the eye and mechanosensory information from the proboscis in contact with the flower.  By building a two-part artificial flower that allows for independent manipulation of visual and mechanosensory cues, Roth et al. disentangled the contribution of each sensory modality to the moth’s flower-following behavior.  They found that the brain linearly sums information from the visual and mechanosensory domains to maintain this behavior. They further demonstrated that either sensory modality alone would be sufficient for this behavior, and this redundancy makes the behavior robust to changes in the availability of sensory information.

This work furthers NIFTI’s second research thrust on sensory architecture and processing, and provides a better understanding of how multiple sensory modalities are used in nature to govern complex behaviors.

This research was also featured in a UW Today article, “Tricking moths into revealing the computational underpinnings of sensory integration”.

Photo credit: Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

Science article from NIFTI PI Sawyer Fuller

University of Washington NIFTI PI Sawyer Fuller co-authored a recently published Science paper, “Perching and takeoff of a robotic insect on overhangs using switchable electrostatic adhesion”.  This fascinating article generated media coverage at the University of Washington: “Using static electricity, insect-sized flying robots can land and stick to surfaces”.  Science also produced a video based on the research, which can be seen below:

Sam Burden, NIFTI PI, receives ARO Young Investigator Award

Sam Burden, a NIFTI investigator at the University of Washington, recently received a Young Investigator Program Award from the Army Research Office (ARO)!  The ARO Young Investigator Award is “one of the most prestigious awards the army grants to early career researchers and scientists”.  More information can be found at:

Media coverage on NIFTI-funded Science article

NIFTI-funded research from Tom Daniel’s lab at the University of Washington was recently published in Science and has been receiving a wide array of media coverage.  The research investigated how hawkmoths track the location of flowers in low-light conditions.

The article, “Luminance-dependent visual processing enables moth flight in low light”, by Simon Sponberg, Jonathan P. Dyhr, Robert W. Hall, and Thomas L. Daniel, can be found on the Science website.  There is also a video associated with the published article (see below).

Science has compiled a summary of the media coverage on the research.  Articles of note include: