Spotlight TEDx Talk: Flying robots inspired by fruit flies

Mihir Garimella at TEDxTeen

Mihir Garimella at TEDxTeen (Photo: TEDxTeen)

Mihir Garimella is a Google Science Fair winner, robotics enthusiast, and Pennsylvania high school student. His winning science project? Flybot, an autonomous flying robot whose design was inspired by the capabilities and behavior of the fruit fly. “I don’t even like fruit flies, I find them really annoying,” Garimella said at TEDxTeen earlier this year, “but they’re good at almost everything they do!”

Garimella was inspired to design such a robot after observing a swarm of these insects. “Fruit flies are really tiny; they probably have a really small brain; they must have awful vision … they really don’t have very much of anything,” Garimella explains. Nonetheless, he observed that fruit flies were still unusually good at escaping harm and avoiding obstacles. How do they do this?

One mechanism fruit flies use to escape predators is to deploy the same behavioral tactic each time: They quickly jump to the side and then fly straight upwards, completing this move in less than a third of a second. By planning out their escape route ahead of time, fruit flies can dodge predators in the blink of an eye.

Another advantageous trait that fruit flies have is their vision. Garimella says that while it’s “true in the conventional sense” that fruit flies have “awful vision,” what this really means is that fruit flies see fewer details and colors than humans do. “Because their eyes produce such little information,” Garimella explains, “they can process that information really quickly, so they can actually see ten times faster than we can.” Fruit flies’ relatively poor vision is therefore really an advantageous trait that helps them see and react more quickly than humans.

Mihir Garimella’s flying robot at TEDxTeen (Photo: TEDxTeen)

To create his flying robot, Garimella designed a number of features based on these specific fruit fly adaptations. The Flybot uses simple infrared distance sensors to gauge how far away a potential threat is, and by using this information it can react autonomously to avoid the threat. Garimella designed the Flybot to escape from harm by quickly flying to the side and then upwards, the same way fruit flies do.

One practical application for flying robots is in assisting emergency response teams. By loading his robot with temperature, smoke, and carbon dioxide sensors, Garimella turned his simple flying robot into a device that can autonomously detect and locate fires. “All of this hardware costs around $90, compared to tens of thousands of dollars for previous work,” Garimella says. “This is a really cheap platform, and it’s really effective for first responders.”

After conducting tests on his robot’s capabilities with local firefighters, Garimella realized the potential for his invention to make emergency response teams more efficient and their work less dangerous. “What I’m working now is on combining all of my work — combining escaping, and avoiding obstacles, and navigation and finding things — to create this one, low-cost platform that firefighters and first responders can use all across the world to save lives with drones.”

Garimella’s eminently practical flying robots may very well change the way humans live, but he says the credit should stay with Mother Nature: “None of this would have been possible without the really effective and really simple ways in which nature has solved all of these problems [already],” he says. We can’t wait to see what insect or animal inspires the next great inventor.

Watch Garimella’s full talk at TEDxTeen below:

Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:

The speaker introduces his ideas about robotics through clear examples and explanations of animal behavior in the natural world, creating a strong link between these two disparate areas of science. The dynamic demonstrations, practical applications for the invention, and the speaker’s infectious enthusiasm for his area of expertise make this talk a pleasure to watch.


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