RoboFly, a wireless insect-size robot takes flight for the first time

Following two decades of rigorous experimenting, a team of engineers at the University of Washington have finally created RoboFly, a small robot-insect drone controlled by an invisible laser beam that reaches places and performs tasks humans cannot.

It took engineers quite awhile to develop this drone because the technology needed to control and power its wings was too heavy. In addition, robot-insects had to be attached to a wire tethered to an external electricity source to power it. This makes RoboFly the first wireless drone the size of an insect.

As lead engineer Sawyer Fuller explains, the robot-insect is powered by an invisible laser beam pointed at a photovoltaic cell. This cell is located at the top of the robot and turns the laser beam light into a source of electricity to power the wings.

Fuller notes that the laser alone does not provide sufficient amounts of electricity. Therefore, the team created a circuit which amplifies the mere 7 volts coming from the photovoltaic cell into the required 240 volts needed to fly the drone.

The engineers also added a micro-controller to the circuit to give the drone more control over its movement. Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering who is part of Fuller’s team, said the micro-controller acts like a brain.

“It tells the wings things like, ‘Flap hard now’ or ‘Don’t flap,'” he said.

As of now, RoboFly can only take off and land. When the photovoltaic cell isn’t directly facing the laser beam, the robot will run out of electricity and land. The engineers are hoping that they will soon be able to steer the laser so that the drone can fly and hover in all directions. The team is currently working on developing advanced sensors to make RoboFly fully autonomous so it can finish tasks alone.

“For full autonomous I would say we are about five years off probably,” he said.

The team is also planning on providing RoboFly with odor sensors to allow it to sniff out gas leaks.

“One of the things that flies do really well is look for smelly things. Our robotic flies can do that pretty well. And if you can find leaks, then you can patch them up more readily and reduce greenhouse emissions,” he said.

For now, Fuller is happy with the strides the team is making with RoboFly. He believes that the size of the drone (and its ability relative to its small size) makes it stand out from the bigger ones in the market right now.

“Larger drones have a pretty limited battery life. Maybe 30 minutes at best. You are going to need to spend a little bit longer in the air to find a leak. You also need a much more powerful laser to power a large drone. We can deploy a lot of them all at once for the same cost as one large drone because of the low materials cost. So, you could have a hundred of them doing the job of one or two big drones,” he said.

“There’s no reason I see why it would inherently cost any more than the little radio-controlled drones that you could buy that have become crazy cheap now — helicopters that are a couple inches across that you can now buy for $20.”