Laser-Powered Robot Insect Achieves Lift-Off

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November 5, 2018 | Originally published by Date Line: November 5 on

Everything is better with lasers, especially tiny robot insects.

For robots of all sizes, power is a fundamental problem. Any robot that moves is constrained in one way or another by power supply, whether it’s relying on carrying around heavy batteries, combustion engines, fuel cells, or anything else. It’s particularly tricky to manage power as your robot gets smaller, since it’s much more straightforward to scale these things up rather than down—and for really tiny robots (with masses in the hundreds of milligrams range), especially those that demand a lot of power, there really isn’t a good solution. In practice, this means that on the scale of small insects robots often depend on tethers for power, which isn’t ideal for making them practical in the long term.

At the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia, next week, roboticists from the University of Washington, in Seattle, will present RoboFly, a laser-powered insect-size flapping wing robot that performs the first (very brief) untethered flight of a robot at such a small scale.

There are a bunch of different ways to potentially power a robot remotely, but most of them suffer from low range, or low efficiency, or don’t deliver a lot of power. For some small robots, this is just fine, but a flying robot demands a lot of power transmitted over a relatively long distance in order to be useful. There’s one obviously best way of doing this, and it’s obviously best because it’s the solution for pretty much every problem in science: lasers.

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