Meet DelFly Nimble, The Insect-Inspired Robot That Mimics The Flight Of A Fruit Fly

MAVLab TU Delft

A new exciting project from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands has resulted in a completely unique fly-inspired robot capable of amazing technological feats.

Dubbed the DelFly Nimble, the robot was built to mimic the flight biomechanics of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) — or, at least, what scientists speculate these could be — in order to help us understand how insects can perform split-second escape maneuvers to evade danger.

Described as the “first autonomous, free-flying and agile flapping-wing robot,” DelFly Nimble is endowed with “nimble flight capabilities” which make it “the most agile fly-inspired robot,” state university officials.

Weighing 29 grams (1.02 ounces), the flying robot has a wingspan of 33 centimeters (almost 13 inches), which makes it about 55 times the size of a fruit fly. However, a quick look at the video below reveals that DelFly Nimble is able to do pretty much everything that a fruit fly can do in the air, including banked turns and spectacular 360-degree flips.

“The robot opened up new possibilities of studying insect flight,” said Matej Karasek, the main designer of the DelFly Nimble. “But it is also a new type of flying robot with unique capabilities.”

According to Ars Technica, the insect-inspired robot flaps its wings 17 times per second and can fly in absolutely any direction (up, down, forward, backward, and sideways), controlling its flight direction via minor adjustments in the motion of its wings.

“The robot has a top speed of 25 km/h [15.5 miles per hour] and can even perform aggressive maneuvers, such as 360-degree flips, resembling loops and barrel rolls,” explained Karasek, who authored a study on the flying bot published today in the journal Science.

At the same time, DelFly Nimble has “excellent power efficiency,” which allows the robot to hover on the spot for up to five minutes and fly more than one kilometer (0.6 miles) with just one charge of its battery.

Built in collaboration with the Experimental Zoology Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the robot has great potential in helping scientists figure out how fruit flies control aggressive escape maneuvers.

“In contrast to animal experiments, we were in full control of what was happening in the robot’s ‘brain,'” said Karasek. “This allowed us to identify and describe a new passive aerodynamic mechanism that assists the flies […] in steering their direction throughout these rapid banked turns.”

For instance, experiments with the robot’s rapid banked turns revealed that fruit flies control the rotation of their body around the vertical axis, also known as yaw, with the help of “a passive coupling effect,” Karasek pointed out.

“We discovered that this effect occurs when we adjust the wing motion to pitch and/or to roll only while moving,” noted the researcher, who believes that other flying insects besides fruit flies might be using the same effect to pull off the same maneuvers.

Aside from aiding in insect flight research, DelFly Nimble can also lead to innovations in insect-inspired drones, which it already surpasses in maneuverability.

One example would be to have artificial fruit flies keep a watchful eye on fruit plantations to catch actual fruits flies in time before they can do any damage, said study co-author Guido de Croon, also from Delft University.

“They can use an onboard camera to spot whether fruit is already ripe, or to see whether plants are under stress and need more water or nutrients,” de Croon told Popular Mechanics. “On the long term, they may even pollinate flowers.”