Robotics innovation takes off at University of Washington with tiny, laser-powered RoboFly


RoboFly is powered by an invisible laser beam (shown here in red) at a photovoltaic cell, which is attached above the robot and converts the laser light into electricity. (University of Washington Photo / Mark Stone)

Fly, fly away may be a famous call when it comes to baseball in Seattle, but at the University of Washington they should be using it to celebrate an advancement in robotics.

Engineers at the UW have cut the cord on previous versions of a man-made insect and created RoboFly, an untethered robot that is slightly heavier than a toothpick and is powered by a laser beam. According to a report in UW News, the team will present its findings May 23 at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia.

The flapping of a tiny robotic insect’s wings and the drain they cause on battery life are the challenging part in this endeavor. So Sawyer Fuller, an assistant professor in UW’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and his team have figured out how to use a narrow invisible laser beam to power RoboFly.

The beam is pointed at a photovoltaic cell, which is attached above RoboFly and converts the laser light into electricity, according to UW. Previous little flying drones would perch on objects and use static electricity to preserve energy and extend flight times.

The laser alone does not provide enough voltage to move the wings of RoboFly, so a circuit was designed to boost the seven volts coming out of the photovoltaic cell up to the 240 volts needed for flight.

Check it out in action in the video below, and read more on the UW website.

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