Robots “Gnat-sized” finally enable stable flight of robots

University of Washington researchers have built a mosquito-sized, robotic fly to address problems related to robotics.

A new flight control and wind-sensing system devised by University of Washington researchers may be able to help solve this tricky robotics problem and allow stable flight of tiny robots like a mosquito. An accelerometer—a sensor that can measure the acceleration of any moving machine, item, or object—is the basis of this system, which was first described in Science Robotics. Small, lightweight robots the size of flying insects can be used for space exploration, hazardous site inspections, search and rescue operations, and other highly useful real-world missions. Despite the potential of these robots, it has not yet been fully realized, in part because of the technological difficulties encountered when trying to stabilize their flight and mechanically mimic the natural flight skills of insects. According to Sawyer Fuller, one of the researchers who conducted the work, “For nearly 40 years, roboticists and microfabrication experts have dreamed of creating ‘mosquito-sized’ robots weighing only a few milligrams. This idea was first mooted by Anita Flynn at Berkeley.

Researchers from the University of Berkeley and Army Research Laboratories have been among those who have succeeded in their attempts to develop operating systems for robots the size of insects weighing 10 mg or less in recent years. But until now, it has been difficult to stabilize and control the flight of these tiny robots. Later, she and Rodney Brooks advocated sending tiny robots known as “smart dust” to study the solar system in an entertaining paper titled “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: A Robot Conquest of the Solar System.” These robots will be much smaller than the 100 mg UW Robofly, bumblebee-sized fly that students in my lab have developed so far.”

According to Fuller, without feedback management, robots and small drones with flapping wings are unstable. “You fall out of the sky in a hurry if you turn on the wings or rotors. According to theory, flies use a gyroscopic halter as feedback to compensate. Therefore, incorporating a gyroscope into a robot architecture would be a logical answer. In my PhD work, I discovered that flies use a sense of wind from Its antennae are feather-shaped to guide its flight, hence our answer to this problem.In this study, we show that measuring air velocity, as flies did, is possible using an accelerometer, which is a different type of sensor.The main advantage is that accelerometers are basically More compact and more efficient than gyros.It comes in a package that weighs just 2mg and is readily available off the shelf.”We found that the two systems responded very similarly when we compared our system’s simulated reaction to a gust of wind with how fruit flies respond to the same storm,” Fuller said.We can now Testing an interesting theory related to the control of insect flight.In particular, it suggests that flying insects that do not have gyroscopes, such as bees and moths, may be able to control their erratic flight dynamics by detecting to wind using its antennae. Fuller continued, “We’ve been able to develop a flight control stability system based on commercially available parts that are small enough for a mosquito-sized robot. “Our approach can also be modified to work with larger robots, such as a 100 mg UW robotic fly, providing additional payload space for a larger battery or more sensors. We intend to show them flying on a UW Robofly in our next investigations.”

It is possible that gyros will be incorporated to help small flying robots fly, but the gyros now on the market are nowhere near as efficient or light as are required to fly such light devices. The full mosquito-sized robot weighs 15mg, 5mg more than the lightest gyroscope ever created. Using a 30-gram robot, Fuller and colleagues evaluated their system in simulations and actual experiments and discovered that it could successfully stabilize its flight and accurately mimic the flight dynamics of fruit flies. They expect to use it and test it on many different flying robots in the future, including smaller ones that weigh 10 mg or less.

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