After more than seven years of work studying flight dynamics and improving various parts, Wood’s fly finally took off this spring. “When I got the fly to take off, I was literally jumping up and down in the lab,” he says.
Other researchers have built robots that mimic insects, but this is the first two-winged robot built on such a small scale that can take off using the same motions as a real fly. The dynamics of such flight are very complicated and have been studied for years by researchers such as Ron Fearing, Wood’s former PhD advisor at the University of California, Berkeley. Fearing, who is building his own robotic insects, says that he was very impressed with the fact that Wood’s insect can fly: “It is certainly a major breakthrough.” But Fearing says that it is the first of many challenges in building a practical fly.
At the moment, Wood’s fly is limited by a tether that keeps it moving in a straight, upward direction. The researchers are currently working on a flight controller so that the robot can move in different directions.
The researchers are also working on an onboard power source. (At the moment, the robotic fly is powered externally.) Wood says that a scaled-down lithium-polymer battery would provide less than five minutes of flying time.
Tiny, lightweight sensors need to be integrated as well. Chemical sensors could be used, for example, to detect toxic substances in hazardous areas so that people can go into the area with the appropriate safety gear. Wood and his colleagues will also need to develop software routines for the fly so that it will be able to avoid obstacles.
Still, Wood is proud to have reached a major project milestone: flight. “It’s quite a major thing,” he says. “A lot of people thought it would never be able to take off.”