In Depth

Laser-powered flying robot insect takes flight

Tiny bug-like droid could be used to help rescue people in disaster zones

Flying robots powered by laser beams may sound like a bizarre machine plucked from science fiction but a team of researchers are one step closer to making the technology a reality. 

Scientists from the University of Washington have developed a minute android with tiny insect-like wings that doesn’t need wires or a battery pack to take flight. 

Instead, the bug-sized robot, dubbed RoboFly, is powered by a laser beam being fired at a receiver on the top of the droid, says TechCrunch.

Footage shows the flying robot, which is only slightly taller than the diameter of a pencil, momentarily lifting off and travelling “almost no distance” before landing, the tech site says. 

Despite the brevity of the robot’s flight time, the test shows that scientists are making progress towards solving some challenges with creating small flying objects. 

Engadget says one of the most difficult aspects of flight is ensuring a craft is carrying enough power to move while being light enough to take off. 

Battery packs are too heavy for small flying gadgets to get airborne, the website says, but the University of Washington’s laser eliminates the need for a battery system as power is transmitted through the air. 

The technology could prove to be as practical as drones, RoboFly’s larger siblings, says Wired

The compact size of the RoboFly and its ability to hover could make it a key piece of technology on reconnaissance missions or as an aid to emergency services searching for people in difficult-to-reach areas, the site says.

Sawyer Fuller, co-author of the research paper on the RoboFly, 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.

“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,” he said.

The team will present the tiny robot at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia, on 23 May.

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