Fluttering robotic insects could be coming to your neighborhood

SEATTLE -- It's not science fiction. A team of engineers at the University of Washington has created an insect-sized robot that mimics real flies.

They hope the tiny robots could help with time-consuming tasks like surveying crop growth on large farms or sniffing out gas leaks.

"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," said Sawyer Fuller, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering.

"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."

These flying robots, officially called RoboFly, work similar to drones with a few differences:

1. A lot smaller: RoboFly are slightly heavier than a toothpick.

2. They have wings: RoboFly is too small to use propellers, so in an engineering feat the UW team created the flapping wings which look and act like a real insect.

3. It has a brain: RoboFly uses a tiny onboard circuit that converts energy from a tiny laser into electricity to operate its wings.

"The microcontrollerists are like a real fly's brain telling wing muscles when to fire," said co-author Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering. "On RoboFly, it tells the wings things like 'flap hard now' or 'don't flap.'"

The UW engineers hope to one day control the RoboFly using a more advanced brain and a sensor system. They also hope to use a tiny battery to power the device instead of tiny lasers.

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