History was recently made with the announcement of the creation of the first wireless flying robotic insect known as RoboFly. This engineering marvel is powered through a laser beam while is slightly heavier than a common toothpick. While this may not seem important to the average person, RoboFly does represent how insect-sized robots could assist in accomplishing several useful tasks.
Why RoboFly is Better Than Current Robotic Flying Insects
Science Daily has published an article that the University of Washington’s engineers have created the first flying robotic insect that is truly wireless. Taking a step back, there are robot flying insects that are currently in existence; however, these robo-insects are tethered to the ground. The electronics that are needed to both power and allow the use of their wings are far too heavy to carry for these miniature robots.
Engineers, from the University of Washington, have finally been able to add a brain that allows the cord to be cut; this allows the RoboFly to take its’ independent flaps for the first time. Though this might appear to one small flap for a robot, it is a giant leap for future robots to be created while the findings of the team plan to present at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation on May 23rd in Brisbane, Australia.
Sawyer Fuller, who is a co-author and an assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering, commented regarding how their creation has a tiny onboard circuit that takes the laser energy and converts it into sufficient electricity for the wings to operate. He said that 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.
Power Consumption an Issue for Flying
Writer Ryan Whitwam also commented on the RoboFly and points out that though the engineers seem to have developed a power source that works, it is only for a short flight span. When looking at drones, most utilizes propellers because they offer excellent maneuverability and that they are efficient. The problem occurs when you miniaturize them because at a certain point, they lose their effectiveness.
Therefore, from a physics standpoint, the best option to have an insect-sized robot fly successfully would to mimic an insect-like style of flight. Yet, batteries are too bulky or heavy that would supply the necessary amount of energy for the flying to work; so, the engineers came up with the concept that allows RoboFly to function for a very limited flight.
Potential Uses for Insect-sized Flying Robots
Even though the power source provides a short flight, it is a big step in finalizing an energy source that would permit it to be used longer; yet, what could something like this be utilized for? Writer Sarah McQuate added her thoughts about it and mentioned some uses such as for handling time-consuming tasks like sniffing out leaks of gas or on large farms to survey crop growth.
She also says to keep in mind that having something that is small is an advantage. These types of robots are inexpensive to construct while slipping easily into tight places while big drones would be inaccessible to them. Since a robot that can fly should be able to get around on its own, the narrow laser beam that powers the robot is pointed to the photovoltaic cell that is connected above RoboFly and then coverts the light-laser into electricity.
Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering and a co-author, said that it was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight. Now that the issue of weight seems to be resolved, it will remain to be seen if future robots of this kind can be improved upon.
Fuller believes that RoboFlies of the future will have a more advanced sensor systems and brains that will assist these robots to complete tasks on their own as well as to navigate successfully. He said that I’d really like to make one that finds methane leaks. 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.