Documenting the Coming Singularity

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Return of the (Robotic) Fly

We have already heard about the remote controlled moths being developed by implanting control chips into moth larvae. On a sort of parallel course, we have now learned that Harvard University has designed and built a fully robotic fly. And it does fly.
A life-size, robotic fly has taken flight at Harvard University. Weighing only 60 milligrams, with a wingspan of three centimeters, the tiny robot's movements are modeled on those of a real fly. While much work remains to be done on the mechanical insect, the researchers say that such small flying machines could one day be used as spies, or for detecting harmful chemicals.
Of course DARPA is funding this research, in hopes of using the robotic Musca domesticas for stealth surveillance operations.

Recreating a fly's efficient movements in a robot roughly the size of the real insect was difficult, however, because existing manufacturing processes couldn't be used to make the sturdy, lightweight parts required. The motors, bearings, and joints typically used for large-scale robots wouldn't work for something the size of a fly. "Simply scaling down existing macro-scale techniques will not come close to the performance that we need," Wood says.

Some extremely small parts can be made using the processes for creating microelectromechanical systems. But such processes require a lot of time and money. Wood and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, needed a cheap, rapid fabrication process so they could easily produce different iterations of their designs.

While these developments are a major achievement, there remains quite a bit more to be done before this fly will be turned loose. It needs an onboard power supply, tiny sensor equipment and flight control computer chips. But having taken wing, one can have little doubt that this little robot will eventually be on the job.


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Bob Mottram said...

Now all we need is a robotic fly swatter!