Robo-fly steadies flight with onboard sensor

A light sensor that looks like a pyramid keeps this robotic fly from tumbling out of the sky. It is the first time an onboard sensor has kept a fly-sized robot stable during flight. 

Courtesy of Sawyer Fuller

A fly-sized flying robot doesn’t crash and burn thanks to an onboard light sensor inspired by those of live flies and honeybees.

These insects have ocelli — three light sensors that are distinct from their compound eyes — that could help stabilize their upward flight by sensing the horizon or sun. When an ocelli-inspired sensor was strapped aboard a fly-sized robot, the sensor kept the robot steady during a 0.3-second climb, researchers report June 18 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. 

The study appears to be the first to scale down an onboard sensor to fit on a fly-sized robot and steady its flight. The results also support a hypothesis for how ocelli work to stabilize the flight of honeybees and possibly other living insects, the scientists say.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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