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What is a Robofly?

A Robofly is a marvel of miniature engineering, a tiny robotic insect designed to mimic the complex flight patterns of a housefly. With wings that flutter at rapid speeds, it represents a fusion of biology and technology, opening new possibilities in surveillance, pollination, and beyond. Imagine the potential of such nimble machines in our world. What could they change for us?
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

"Robofly" is a generic name for any attempt at artificial flying machines on the size scale of houseflies, with wingspans about 3 cm (around an inch) and weights of about 100 milligrams. Several research efforts have focused on this challenge, often drawing inspiration from the biomechanics of real flies.

One of the earliest serious efforts to build a robofly was by the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab at the University of California at Berkeley. Started in 1998 and still ongoing, the project has not yet successfully built a real robofly, though some researchers did collaborate on what eventually became the first successful robofly. The team also made numerous important observations and discoveries about the mechanics of insect-scale flight. Finding that stainless steel lacked the necessary strength-to-weight ratio, the team began building prototypes out of carbon fiber in 2002.

Roboflies are about the same size as houseflies.
Roboflies are about the same size as houseflies.

The first successful robofly was built by Harvard engineer David Wood in 2007. It had a wingspan of 3 cm and a weight of 60 mg. Because the robofly lacked a control system, it was a tethered flight. Like many other robofly efforts, Wood's work has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA. The United States military has been keen on developing roboflies for surveillance purposes, though they would have many other applications.

Roboflies may be used to track enemy troops.
Roboflies may be used to track enemy troops.

Building roboflies is difficult for several reasons: the biomechanics of fly flight are not perfectly understood, and the components necessary to build prototypes are so small and strong that special manufacturing techniques are needed to build them. For the successful Harvard robofly, laser micromachining of carbon fiber and polymer components was used, with precision to as little as two microns.

Because roboflies are so small, the surveillance information they could pick up in the field would likely be very low-resolution, probably similar to the visual signals picked up by real-life flies. Their small size would also prevent on-board communications with anything but very low power requirements. To save on actuator space, the robofly uses electroactive materials that bend in response to electric fields. As of 2008, researchers are still working on optimizing fly designs and getting their pre-existing designs off the ground.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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    • Roboflies are about the same size as houseflies.
      By: paulrommer
      Roboflies are about the same size as houseflies.
    • Roboflies may be used to track enemy troops.
      By: Pavel Bernshtam
      Roboflies may be used to track enemy troops.