RoboFly is slightly heavier than a toothpick (via Mark Stone/University of Washington)

Humanoid robots can’t take over the world alone: Insect-esque androids are a great distraction, their tiny mechanical bodies crawling or flying to divert attention from the cyborg uprising.

Or, I suppose, they could be better used for time-consuming tasks too challenging for larger drones.

That’s a dream for the future, though, as current robo-insects remain tethered to the ground by electronics needed to power and control their wings.

But, by cutting the cord and adding a brain, engineers at the University of Washington have solved the mobility problem, allowing their so-called RoboFly to independently take flight.

“This might be one small flap for a robot, but it’s one giant leap for robot-kind,” the UW press announcement quipped.


RoboFly is slightly larger than a real fly (via Mark Stone/University of Washington)

Expanding on his previous work with RoboBee—an automated bug that requires a grounded leash—Sawyer Fuller upgraded to more modern technology.

“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?” he said in a statement. “Our new wireless RoboFly shows they’re much closer to real life.”

An assistant professor in UW’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Fuller used a minuscule onboard circuit to convert laser energy into electricity to operate the fly’s wings.

“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” according to Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the School of Computer Science and Engineering.

But a laser alone cannot provide enough voltage to satisfy the power-hungry process of moving the wings. So, the team designed a circuit to boost the seven volts emitted by the photovoltaic cell to the 240 volts necessary for flight.

They even added a microcontroller to give RoboFly control over its own manufactured outgrowths.

“The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain, telling wing muscles when to fire,” Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering, said. “On RoboFly, it tells the wings things like ‘flap hard now’ or ‘don’t flap.’”

And it does so in a way that mimics a real insect’s flappers—by using pulses to shape waves.

“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,” lead study author Johannes James, a mechanical engineering doctoral student, explained. “And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction.”


Engineers point an invisible laser beam at a photovoltaic cell, attached above the robot to convert laser light into electricity (via Mark Stone/University of Washington)

Don’t expect the RoboFly circus to come through town any time soon, though.

As soon as the device, which can currently only take off and land, moves out of direct line of sight of the laser, it runs out of power. The team is working to be able to steer the laser so RoboFly can hover and move at will.

To avoid these restraints, future versions may use tiny batteries, or even harvest energy from radio frequency signals, allowing the power source to be modified for specific tasks.

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

The team will present its findings next week at the International Conference on Robotics and Animation in Australia.