Meet RoboFly, the Mechanical Insect That Could Fly Climate-Saving Missions
By Marlene Cimons
This is one flying insect you don't want to swat. It doesn't bite, sting or spread disease. In fact, someday it could be a life- and climate-saver. In time, it could even be used to survey crops, detect wildfires, poke around in disaster rubble searching for survivors and sniff out gas leaks, especially global warming-fueling methane, a powerful greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Introducing … RoboFly!
It's the first robotic flying insect that lifts off without being tethered to a power source on the ground, unlike other flying robotics. It weighs just a bit more than a toothpick and takes off using tiny beating wings—not propellers, as drones do—driven by a laser beam. A minuscule onboard circuit turns the laser energy into electricity, which causes its wings to flap.
Right now, RoboFly only can take off and land—but cutting the cord is just the beginning, its inventors say. "Before now, the concept of wireless insect-sized flying robots was science fiction," said Sawyer Fuller, assistant professor in the University of Washington's department of mechanical engineering and one of its creators. "Our new wireless RoboFly shows they're much closer to real life."
The researchers presented their findings at the recent International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane.
The University of Washington engineers who created RoboFly check out their new tiny wireless flying robot. Back row (left to right): Yogesh Chukewad, Sawyer Fuller, Shyam Gollakota; Front row: Vikram Iyer, Johannes James.Mark Stone / University of Washington
Ultimately, the scientists believe their invention will have the ability to hover, perch on things and fly around by steering the laser, or by adding tiny batteries or perhaps culling energy from radio frequency signals. The goal is to direct it into performing specific tasks, such as surveying crop growth and detecting gas leaks. They even think it might be possible to equip them with smoke detectors so they can find forest fires more rapidly than larger robots.
"Studies have suggested that natural gas—methane—leakage may be so prevalent that it may actually be a worse greenhouse gas emitter per unit energy than coal," Fuller said. "This is because natural gas has a much greater deleterious greenhouse gas effect than the carbon dioxide that results from burning carbon-based fuel. My hope is that creating a technology that makes it convenient to find leaks will help them be patched up."
The scenario would work like this:
"You will be able to buy a small container of these little fly robots, open it up, and they will, all on their own, fly out and follow plumes in the air to find leaks," Fuller explained. "Once they have found one, they will land near it and start flashing a light. A human would then just need to look around to see where the leaks are. This would replace the painstaking and dangerous process of covering the area with a gas sensor by hand, which is how it is done now."
Mountain top sensor detects methane levels in the air above Los Angeles.NASA
The level of autonomy needed to do this is still a few years off, he said. "That said, I think it is going to be very possible," Fuller said "Nature has proven that it is possible in any number of species, from flies to vultures, to use the information carried in a chemical plume in the air to find its source."
The device also could have valuable agricultural uses, "flying down in the plant canopy, looking for disease and measuring parameters like humidity, with much finer detail than is possible with overhead drones, enabling a new sort of 'micro agriculture,' that could locally tailor the environment to optimize yields," Fuller said.
Thus, releasing the bug from its leash "was really a necessary step to enable them to fly freely and perform the applications we envision," he added.
Perching—staying aloft in the air with buzzing or flapping, landing and staying there—is another goal. "Perching is something we're interested in because that's a very efficient way to operate for a long time, and it has already been demonstrated on the RoboBee which still had a wire at that point," said Johannes James, a mechanical engineering doctoral student and member of the team. "We've already started there."
Robotic flies could alight on supports along a pipeline, or in a refining facility, for example, and perform long-term sensing along the length of the pipes, and then move elsewhere to collect more data, according to James. Also, since fluttering the wings eats up power, the ability to stay in one place without flapping would save energy, he said.
"This distributed sensing kind of operation gives you some big advantages over a single expensive robot for applications like finding hard-to-detect leaks," he said. "The ability to perch or move along the ground would help this by allowing them to operate longer."
Firefighters respond to a gas pipeline leak in Brooklyn, NY, 2016.Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit
The team used a narrow, invisible laser beam to power the insect, pointing it at photovoltaic cells attached above the robot, which converted the laser light into electricity. But the laser alone can't produce voltage strong enough to get the wings moving, so the scientists also designed a circuit to boost the voltage coming out of the cell enough to power flight. Eventually, the team hopes to use batteries as an energy source, "but for now they are too heavy for fly-sized robots."
"Future work, as far as power solutions, will include aiming the laser for sustained flight, gathering energy from ambient light levels for short flights and then recharging; and a third, which really excites me, is wireless power through coupled coils, somewhat along the lines of Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe and Colorado Springs projects," James added. "The third is hard to explain, but is certainly cool."
The scientists also placed a microcontroller in the insect's circuit that acts like a brain, telling the wings when to fire.
James pointed out that robotic critters might even enhance scientists' knowledge of real world bugs.
"We still don't understand very well how flying insects work," he said. "In fact, they're amazing when you think about it. That's where the RoboFly can lend a hand. Robots are very valuable to biological research, and developing a wireless RoboFly is a crucial step to understanding the behavior of actual insects."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
The National Hurricane Center has run out of names for tropical storms this year and has now moved on to the Greek alphabet during an extremely active hurricane season. Late Monday night, Tropical Storm Beta became the ninth named storm to make landfall. That's the first time so many named storms have made landfall since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was president, according to NBC News.
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Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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