Nav: Home

The first wireless flying robotic insect takes off

May 15, 2018

Insect-sized flying robots could help with time-consuming tasks like surveying crop growth on large farms or sniffing out gas leaks. These robots soar by fluttering tiny wings because they are too small to use propellers, like those seen on their larger drone cousins. Small size is advantageous: These robots are cheap to make and can easily slip into tight places that are inaccessible to big drones.

But current flying robo-insects are still tethered to the ground. The electronics they need to power and control their wings are too heavy for these miniature robots to carry.

Now, engineers at the University of Washington have for the first time cut the cord and added a brain, allowing their RoboFly to take its first independent flaps. This might be one small flap for a robot, but it's one giant leap for robot-kind. The team will present its findings May 23 at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia.

RoboFly is slightly heavier than a toothpick and is powered by a laser beam. It uses a tiny onboard circuit that converts the laser energy into enough electricity to operate its wings.

"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?" said co-author Sawyer Fuller, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering. "Our new wireless RoboFly shows they're much closer to real life."

The engineering challenge is the flapping. Wing flapping is a power-hungry process, and both the power source and the controller that directs the wings are too big and bulky to ride aboard a tiny robot. So Fuller's previous robo-insect, the RoboBee, had a leash -- it received power and control through wires from the ground.

But a flying robot should be able to operate on its own. Fuller and team decided to use a narrow invisible laser beam to power their robot. They pointed the laser beam at a photovoltaic cell, which is attached above RoboFly and 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 Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW's Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

Still, the laser alone does not provide enough voltage to move the wings. That's why the team designed a circuit that boosted the seven volts coming out of the photovoltaic cell up to the 240 volts needed for flight.

To give RoboFly control over its own wings, the engineers provided a brain: They added a microcontroller to the same circuit.

"The microcontroller acts like a real fly's brain telling wing muscles when to fire," said co-author 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.

"It uses pulses to shape the wave," said Johannes James, the lead author and a mechanical engineering doctoral student. "To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave. And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction."

For now, RoboFly can only take off and land. Once its photovoltaic cell is out of the direct line of sight of the laser, the robot runs out of power and lands. But the team hopes to soon be able to steer the laser so that RoboFly can hover and fly around.

While RoboFly is currently powered by a laser beam, future versions could use tiny batteries or harvest energy from radio frequency signals, Gollakota said. That way, their power source can be modified for specific tasks.

Future RoboFlies can also look forward to more advanced brains and sensor systems that help the robots navigate and complete tasks on their own, Fuller said.

"I'd really like to make one that finds methane leaks," he said. "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."
-end-
Mechanical engineering doctoral student Yogesh Chukewad is also a co-author on this paper. This research was funded by the University of Washington and a Microsoft student fellowship.

For more information, contact the research team at wireless_fly@uw.edu.

University of Washington

Related Robots Articles:

Tactile sensor gives robots new capabilities
Eight years ago, Ted Adelson's research group at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) unveiled a new sensor technology, called GelSight, that uses physical contact with an object to provide a remarkably detailed 3-D map of its surface.
Researchers question if banning of 'killer robots' actually will stop robots from killing
A University at Buffalo research team has published a paper that implies that the rush to ban and demonize autonomous weapons or 'killer robots' may be a temporary solution, but the actual problem is that society is entering into a situation where systems like these have and will become possible.
Soft robots that mimic human muscles
An EPFL team is developing soft, flexible and reconfigurable robots.
Team of robots learns to work together, without colliding
When you have too many robots together, they get so focused on not colliding with each other that they eventually just stop moving.
Social robots -- programmable by everyone
The startup LuxAI was created following a research project at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) of the University of Luxembourg.
On the path toward molecular robots
Scientists at Hokkaido University have developed light-powered molecular motors that repetitively bend and unbend, bringing us closer to molecular robots.
Gentle strength for robots
A soft actuator using electrically controllable membranes could pave the way for machines that are no danger to humans.
Robots get creative to cut through clutter
Clutter is a special challenge for robots, but new Carnegie Mellon University software is helping robots cope, whether they're beating a path across the moon or grabbing a milk jug from the back of the refrigerator.
Humans can empathize with robots
Toyohashi Tech researchers in cooperation with researchers at Kyoto University have presented the first neurophysiological evidence of humans' ability to empathize with a robot in perceived pain.
Giving robots a more nimble grasp
Engineers at MIT have now hit upon a way to impart more dexterity to simple robotic grippers: using the environment as a helping hand.

Related Robots Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Crisis
There's no greater threat to humanity than climate change. What can we do to stop the worst consequences? This hour, TED speakers explore how we can save our planet and whether we can do it in time. Guests include climate activist Greta Thunberg, chemical engineer Jennifer Wilcox, research scientist Sean Davis, food innovator Bruce Friedrich, and psychologist Per Espen Stoknes.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#527 Honey I CRISPR'd the Kids
This week we're coming to you from Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. There, host Bethany Brookshire led a panel of three amazing guests to talk about the promise and perils of CRISPR, and what happens now that CRISPR babies have (maybe?) been born. Featuring science writer Tina Saey, molecular biologist Anne Simon, and bioethicist Alan Regenberg. A Nobel Prize winner argues banning CRISPR babies won’t work Geneticists push for a 5-year global ban on gene-edited babies A CRISPR spin-off causes unintended typos in DNA News of the first gene-edited babies ignited a firestorm The researcher who created CRISPR twins defends...