Robot insect is powered by a laser

Robot insect is powered by a laser

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

The roboits use tiny wings because they are too small to use propellers, but the electronics and batteries they need to power and control their wings are too heavy for these miniature robots to carry.

RoboFly is slightly heavier than a toothpick and is powered by a laser beam. It uses an onboard photocell to converts infrared 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 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. This 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, received power and control through wires from the ground. For the Robofly they used the photocell with the IR laser. 

The Robofly developed at the University of Washington

“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” said Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

However, the photocell does not provide enough voltage to move the wings so the team designed a circuit that boosted the 7V output to the 240 V needed for flight.

THe tam also added a microcontroller that modulates the voltage to mimic the fluttering of a real insect’s wings at 120Hz. “This acts like a real fly’s brain telling wing muscles when to fire,” said Vikram Iye 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.'”

“It uses pulses to shape the wave,” said Johannes James, 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. Future versions could use tiny batteries or harvest energy from radio frequency signals, said Gollakota, with more advanced brains and sensor systems.

“I’d really like to make one that finds methane leaks,” said Fuller. “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.”

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