Engineers have invented an insect-sized flying robot that is free from electric wires tethering it to the ground.
Its inventors are engineers from the University of Washington (UW) and they are going to present their work at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia, next week.
They expect that, in the future, RoboFly could help with tasks like inspecting crops or detecting gas leaks.
“Before now, the concept of wireless insect-sized flying robots was science fiction,” said Dr Sawyer Fuller, co-author of the study.
“Would we ever be able to make them work without needing a wire?” asked the assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering.
“Our new wireless RoboFly shows they’re much closer to real life.”
The team believes the real engineering achievement with the tiny robot is in its flapping wings, which is an energy-intensive activity.
As both the power source and the controller for the wings are too big and heavy to be on board the tiny robot themselves, Dr Fuller’s previous insect, the RoboBee, had to be tethered to its power source through wires from the ground.
RoboFly is able to operate on its own. Dr Fuller’s team uses a narrow and invisible laser beam pointed at a photovoltaic cell attached above RoboFly which converts the laser light into electricity.
“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” said co-author Dr Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor at UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.
Buy itself the laser does not provide enough voltage to power the wings however, so the team designed a circuit to boost the seven volts produced by the photovoltaic cell up to the 240 volts needed for the flight.
To give RoboFly its independence, the team also added a microcontroller to the same circuit.
“The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain telling wing muscles when to fire,” said Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering.
“On RoboFly, it tells the wings things like ‘flap hard now’ or ‘don’t flap’.”
Specifically, the controller sends voltage in waves to mimic the fluttering of a real insect’s wings.