Saturday, December 03, 2005

Evolution of the Flybot

Miniaturisation has been the cornerstone of technological advance. It has allowed us shrink computers down from the size of a room to something that fits in you bag, allowing us to cram more processors onto microchips, and cramming more microchips into small devices (e.g. the gracefully petite mobile phones of today). Of course, microscopic intricacy can also be found in nature, I often find myself bewildered at the complexity and intelligence of insects, and often find myself completely dumbfounded by what goes on at the cellular and sub-cellular levels inside all living things.

Its now the 21st century, and you cant go anywhere without seeing an ipod or mobile phone on display as a testament to mankind’s skills at shrinking technology. I began to wonder if we had things nailed to the point where we can begin to compete with nature. So, I thought of something small- Flies.

Flies are a marvel of nature; they are nature’s ace pilots. The can move at speed through the air with control and manoeuvrability that greatly exceeds anything the best helicopters can do today. Their compound vision allows them to spot predators quickly, with their tiny brains processing this information quickly enough so that they can take evasive action. Hover flies can hover pretty much on the spot in the same way as humming birds, with their wings beating at around 1000 times per second.

So flies are fantastically complex, surely no one has even tried to make one I hear you say. Luckily for us the answer to that is yes. A team from Berkeley University is working on a Micromechanical Flying Insect (MFI). Apparently the goal of this project is to develop a 25mm (wingtip-to-wingtip) device capable of sustained autonomous flight. This hugely ambitious device will integrate a camera, sensors, microprocessor, transmitter, and of course wings. This project is not quite off the ground yet (pun intended), but the last few years of research have led to the development of actuators that can produce adequate wing flapping, and a greater understanding of insect flight.

Anyway here is the link to the MFI projects site, but be warned it’s pretty technical:

Also be sure to check out the previous artist impressions of the MFI, just to see how things have been developing over the last few years. You’ll have to click the ‘images’ link on the side, because believe it or not the Berkeley web site still uses frames!

It is clear that when complete the MFI will have numerous roles in modern espionage and reconnaissance. But in time as the technology is superseded what roles will first generation MFI’s play? They could lead to whole new generation of ‘fly on the wall’ documentaries, or perhaps even more reality TV (I hope not). Perhaps someday MFI’s will become so inexpensive they will be a must have gadget, ultimately resulting in a whole new genre of Internet sleaze.

Food for thought dear readers…



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Blogger Jenny said...

Interesting entry. I was reading Dan Brown's 'Deception Point' earlier; he describes the use of micro flying robots in reconnaissance, although it's only a story of course.
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9:24 pm  

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