Shoo Fly, Don't Spy On Me

Ron Fearing, another engineer at UC Berkeley, has even loftier goals than Pister: He wants to build a robot that can fly. So far, he has succeeded in creating a micro-robot that beats its wings 250 times a second—the wing speed of an average housefly. "No one has made something this lightweight and fast before," says Fearing.

The bot is still bound to the lab benchtop. Before it can take off, Fearing must devise a portable power supply. He needs a lithium battery that weighs less than 40 milligrams. The smallest battery available off-the-shelf weighs 500 milligrams—half the weight of a paperclip. Battery manufacturers can custom-make smaller batteries, Fearing says, but it takes time.

Like Kris Pister, Fearing has worked with micro-robots for almost two decades. He concurs that an explosion of the field is just around the corner. In five years, Fearing predicts, millimeter-scale robots will be available to the average consumer—first as toys, then as more useful gadgets.

"What's really intriguing about the smaller robots is that they can do things people can't do," he says. Fearing imagines his synthetic flies exploring hard to reach or dangerous places, like coal mines, heating ducts, and collapsed buildings.

Ultimately, mass-produced micro-robots will cost mere dollars, Fearing projects. "You'll be able to get them as little toys in your McDonald's Happy Meal," he says, "because the silicon is so cheap."