Innovation That Matters

Robotic insects | Photo source Varun Raghav on Unsplash

Wireless robotic insects can take flight


Powered by a laser beam, engineers have designed a wireless flying robotic insect.

We have seen flying drones designed for use in home security and a palm-sized drone for taking selfies and videos. However, smaller drones such as existing robotic insects have not yet been able to take flight. Now, engineers from the University of Washington have developed wireless flying robotic insects, known as RoboFly.

The RoboFly’s have a photovoltaic cell attached above them. Once the engineers direct an invisible laser beam at the photovoltaic cell, it converts it into electricity, powering the RoboFly. In addition, it has a tiny onboard circuit to boost the volts from the photovoltaic cell. Together, this creates enough voltage for the RoboFly to take flight, boosting the photovoltaic cell’s seven volts into 240 volts. Adding a brain to the design was essential to taking robotic insects off the ground and into the air. To do so, a microcontroller is embedded in the onboard circuit to give each RoboFly the control to use its wings. Moreover, the microcontroller recreates how a real insect uses its wings using pulses of voltage. These shape the wave to create a fluttering motion.

As the robots are the size of an insect, they have many useful applications. For example, they can access areas that larger drones cannot. Some of the suggested uses for the flying robots are finding gas leaks or surveying crop growth on farms. Currently, the RoboFly only works when a laser is directly pointed at it. To develop this, the engineers plan to steer the laser to give the RoboFly a higher range of motion. The RoboFly team will be explaining their invention and findings at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Australia on May 23. What other industries can make use of insect-sized drones?




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