Clap if you believe in robot fairies

“I’ll teach you how to jump on the wind’s back, and then away we go,” Peter Pan says to Wendy.

In J.M. Barrie’s book, fairies can be brought back to life if enough people believe in them.

Researchers at the Light Robots group at Tampere University in Finland have gone a step further, creating a tiny robot sprite which flies by the wind and is controlled by light.

The robot fairy is a delicate, wirelessly controlled soft-bodied robot able to be powered and controlled by a light source like a laser beam or LED.

The project is called FAIRY – flying aero-robots based on light responsive materials assembly.

Although the robot looks and behaves just like the magical kind, the design is inspired by a different kind of fairy. It’s based on a dandelion seed – the kind children sometimes call fairies, making wishes as they blow the seeds into the air. 

Dandelions are found all over the world, delivering their seeds by updrafts and winds (and sometimes with the aid of small humans) over wide distances. The seed’s parachute-like shape, porous structure and its light weight enable it to fly.

And it’s these design features – high porosity and feather-light structure – which also enable the tiny robot to float on the wind.

The miniature robot was made by UV-curing 54 pieces of filament trimmed from textile fabric, bundled around a rectangular light sensitive film. It weighs only 1.2mg, equivalent to the weight of a very small feather.

Light is used to change the robot’s shape and structure, directing it to take-off, land and adapt to wind direction.

The researchers are now focusing on improving the ability of the device to operate in sunlight. As well as scaling up the structure to carry micro-electronic devices like GPS, sensors and biochemical compounds.

This could allow it to be used for applications, including in agriculture.

“It sounds like science fiction, but the proof-of-concept experiments included in our research show that the robot we have developed provides an important step towards realistic applications suitable for artificial pollination,” says lead author Hao Zeng.

In the future, the researchers say, millions of artificial dandelion seeds carrying pollen could be dispersed freely by natural winds and then steered by light toward specific areas with trees awaiting pollination.

“This would have a huge impact on agriculture globally since the loss of pollinators due to global warming has become a serious threat to biodiversity and food production,” Zeng says.

The robot fairy research is published in Advanced Science.

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