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RoboFly: the laser-powered tiny robot that weighs as much as a toothpick

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A team at the University of Washington have successfully flown the world’s lightest insect-drone, appropriately named the RoboFly.

Whereas most drones achieve lift through rotors, the RoboFly uses tiny wings. Insect-drones of this size have previously achieved flight while tethered but this was the first time one flew wirelessly (albeit briefly).

Last week we wrote about the rise of insect drones and the many possible future applications. Narrower than a penny and weighing about as much as a toothpick (100 mg), the RoboFly cannot fly under its own power.

The RoboFly – Mark Stone/University of Washington

Nano drones carry some distinct advantages over bigger drones such as being extremely cheap to produce and deploy. Due to their ability to fly and land in very small places, these drones are expected to revolutionize fields ranging from reconnaissance or emergency response.

Due to their very small size, crafts like this are generally unable to support the weight of a battery. The genius of this design (as the video demonstrates) is that researchers were able to attach a photovoltaic cell to the end of a wire and by shining a laser directly onto the cell, the RoboFly could get power to the wings and fly for a split-second.

For the moment it only has the ability to fly up and down however researchers hope to gradually develop more advanced brain and sensor systems which will enable it to move around and perform autonomous tasks. They will also look to give the RoboFly a micro battery or even have the ability to harvest energy from radio frequencies which would enable it to fly freely.

The team of five designers behind RoboFly have suggested their creation may be used to discover methane leaks. They envision a scenario where a person might release a suitcase of RoboFlies, which when equipped with the right sensors could locate the source of the leak.

The researchers are set to present their research to the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia on May 23.

We’ll be sure to keep you updated on future developments with this project.

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