Laser-Powered Flying Machine Weighs Milligrams

We’ve become used to seeing some beautiful hand-made creations at the smaller end of the flying machine scale, tiny aircraft both fixed and rotary wing. An aircraft that weighs a few grams is entirely possible to build, such have been the incredible advances in component availability.

But how much smaller can a working aircraft be made? Given a suitable team and budget, how about into the milligrams? [Dr. Sawyer Fuller] and his team at the University of Washington have made an ornithopter which may be the lightest aircraft yet made, using a piezoelectric drive to flap flexible wings. That in itself isn’t entirely new, but whereas previous efforts had relied on a tether wire supplying electricity, the latest creation flies autonomously with its power supplied by laser to an on-board miniature solar cell that protrudes above the craft on its wires.

Frustratingly Dr. Fuller’s page on the machine is lighter on detail than we’d like, probably because they are saving the juicy stuff for a big reveal at a conference presentation. It is however an extremely interesting development from a technical perspective, as well as opening up an entirely new front in the applications for flying machines. Whatever happens, we’ll keep you posted.

You can see the craft in the video below the break, and if you’re interested lies with more conventional tiny machines take a look at the creator of a 2.9g Mustang model.

21 thoughts on “Laser-Powered Flying Machine Weighs Milligrams

    1. The post office still wanted to charge me an exhorbitant amount to ship full helium balloons despite my argument that they actually helped contribute to the lift of the airplane, thus saving fuel

          1. I feel like some math to back up this assertion is in order.

            USPS ships by both size and weight. So if you have a package that can’t be placed on the scale because it’s lighter than air, what happens to the rate calculation? A lot of package sorting relies on things like motorized conveyor belts. Will the package float to the top of the sorting center and get stuck? So may questions with this one!

            Back to the laser-powered insect. This is certainly a Power Harvesting concept. Who’s going to build something using this idea as part of the Hackaday Prize challenge that begins on Monday?

          2. Mike Szczys: doesn’t need any math at all – what Jeffo says is true: an “empty” plane flying through the air is carrying (and accelerating) its own mass plus the mass of all the air filling it. For the plane to move, the air inside it also has to move, so replacing that air with something of lower density decreases the total mass being accelerated. What kind of math are you wanting to see, to prove this?

          3. Also, Mike, this is not a power harvesting concept, since it does not gather enough ambient energy to move itself. It is a power TRANSMISSION concept. Back in the 1960s, I remember articles in Popular Somethingorother, showing the airplane of the future, powered by microwave beams transmitted from solar farms along the air routes. This is really the same as that, but with shorter wavelength beamed energy. The concept here is the same: eliminate the mass taken up by the energy storage system (i.e., fuel and tankage) and replace it with an energy receiver system. But people were squeamish about the side-effects of beaming that much microwave power up into the air. Maybe lasers are a better idea. Or, to reduce the number of conversions necessary, maybe a system of mirrors on the ground, steerable to direct sunlight at planes would work better. Of course, the reason for using microwaves in the first place was so that the power wouldn’t be interrupted by CLOUDS. But for artificial insects in the lab, clouds aren’t a big problem.

          1. This. Just because it floats does not necessarily mean it has ‘negative’ weight. People on here are mixing what mass, weight, and buoyancy are.

      1. That sneaky distinction between weight and mass. At least on Earth, almost anywhere else it’s very obvious. Sure wish negative mass was a thing we could do in a practical way! That would be incredible.

    1. I always check the back of the newspaper when I swat one. They tend to stick to passive discs. So far no mosquitos with cameras on their backs. If I do find one it will most certainly be put under the microscope.

    1. Yeah, I was wondering about why it’s way the hell up there. Why not just put the solar cell on the front or back end and laser it from that end? Or just flat on top, if the concern is about balance?

  1. Seems like I read years back that a team of scientists in the Netherlands came out with their fly drone that was used for surveillance though I’m not finding now. My Dad would say those had already existed and you’re not going to know about those for another 25 yrs and that was maybe 98 or so. He was correct about a few technologies that existed back when he was in the USAF that are disclosed now for public purview.

    Remote controlling insects (large compared though):

    Still large compared remote controlled hummingbird surveillance drone:

    Then neat looking images… though looks like this video has more video evidence of actual operation of smallest laser powered flying machine, though not much:

    Then I found this link and did youtube searches for videos (still not the microfly I recall):

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