In May engineers at the University of Washington debuted a teeny-tiny project of mammoth importance: the RoboFly. Its microchip body approximates a bumblebee with a millimeter wingspan and, weighing 100 milligrams, is just a bit heavier than a toothpick. Soon, the mini drone could scour small spaces for disaster survivors or swiftly survey acres of crop growth.
Engineers have been developing robo-insects since 1998 and many of their iterations have managed to lift off, fly, and land, but all while tethered to a power source. The UW group’s RoboFly, though, is the first takeoff without such a wire.
“People have talked about trying to do this for a long time,” says Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in computer science and engineering, but building on two decades of research, Gollakota and a team of four others have finally designed a liberated bug. Its power derives from an attached photovoltaic cell—like a mini solar panel—that converts infrared laser light into electricity. Operators aim a beam at the tiny blue cell that sets its little wings aflutter.
RoboFly clocks 150 to 170 flaps per second. “That’s actually about the same as insects, which have something on the order of 100 to 200 wingbeats per second,” explains Vikram Iyer, an electrical engineering doctoral student. It’s hard to argue with a million years of evolution.
Though it can’t fly for a sustained period of time just yet, that the microdrone is only a year out from that reality raises new concerns about espionage and privacy. A farmer could, perhaps, use RoboFly not only for a crop check, but also to collect data about neighbors’ habits, then sell the information to marketers.
“From the beginning you have to get people thinking about the ways this could go right and go wrong,” says Nathan Colaner, a philosophy professor at Seattle University who considers the ethics of Big Data and artificial intelligence. Ethical and legal values have to be baked into the design, argues Colaner, with all the potential uses and misuses in mind from the beginning.
“As we develop this in public view, put it in the public domain, and make it more practical,” says Gollakota, “we also design extreme measures to prevent people from using it in nefarious manners,” which could look like building security and detection mechanisms into the technology itself.
But outfit it with a camera and the RoboFly could conduct search and rescue missions too dangerous (or tight) for people. Or mount olfactory sensors so it can sniff out dangerous, odious leaks, much like the real-life, scent-obsessed flies that inspired it.