On gossamer wings, the delicate robot flits lightly into the air. Its rectangular body, protruding with functional greeblings and connecting copper strands, leaves the ground, wobbles and then lands again on wire-thin railings. The flight is almost imperceptible at normal speed, becoming clear only when the frame rate is slowed to 3/20ths. In total, the flight lasts less than half a second. The altitude gained is perhaps three, maybe four millimeters, if that. First flights don’t have to be big flights for them to matter. The proof is in what comes next.
The drone in question is the “RoboFly,” created by the Autonomous Insect Robotics Lab at the University of Washington. The robot uses a photovoltaic cell for power, which normally implies solar power but in this specific case absorbs energy from a laser directed at the cell. RoboFly flies by flapping, a piezoelectric actuator functioning as a contracting and expanding muscle as electric current flows through it. Coordinating it all is a microcontroller on the RoboFly’s body.
“Specifically, we present the lightest wireless robotic flight to date by showing liftoff of a 190 mg robot,” write the RoboyFly’s creators. That weight, 190 mg, is roughly the same as a toothpick. And here it is! A tiny flying robot! Now what?
The applications for a miniature robot depend on a lot of subsequent miniaturization. For the RoboyFly, simply fitting the circuitry on the body that amplifies the power it receives was a hurdle, and while adding sensors is a logical direction, it will take new sensors on a similar scale, a way to transmit the data collected from those sensors, and possibly even some way to direct the robots. That’s a lofty ambition and the gap between university research project and battlefield application can be years or even more than a decade away.
That’s a lot of “if” to happen first, and there are further limitations. The RoboFly needs a laser focused on its power cell or else it loses power. The small size suggest a use in denied environments, but unless there’s a separate robot that is pointing lasers at the RoboFlies, they’ll need a nearby human operator, or another way to work.
Still, sparrow-sized drones are now part of the battlefield, even operating from other vehicles. Insect-sized machines could be scattered by planes, activated remotely with the right lasers, creating a swarm of flapping robots. With sensors they could provide some surveillance from difficult-to-reach corners. With directional control the swarms could move like locusts, a mess of miniature wings and metal. If they could fit into pockets, little drones could slide through cracks and then be beamed back upwards if person trapped beneath rubble could just shine the right light.
The use cases are narrower than that of larger drones, but the surprise and the form factor are compelling enough to warrant serious thinking about these miniature machines.
Watch it below: