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Scientists unveil insect-sized flying robot

Scientists have invented an insect-sized flying robot that is free from electric wires tethering it to the ground.

RoboFly is slightly heavier than a toothpick and is powered by a laser beam, using a tiny on-board circuit to convert the laser energy into electricity to flap its wings.

Its inventors are engineers from the University of Washington (UW) and they are going to present their work at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia, next week.

They expect that, in the future, RoboFly could help with tasks like inspecting crops or detecting gas leaks.

"Before now, the concept of wireless insect-sized flying robots was science fiction," said Dr Sawyer Fuller, co-author of the study.

"Would we ever be able to make them work without needing a wire?" asked the assistant professor in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering.

"Our new wireless RoboFly shows they're much closer to real life."

Image: RoboFly is slightly heavier than a toothpick. Pic: Mark Stone/University of Washington

The team believes the real engineering achievement with the tiny robot is in its flapping wings, which is an energy-intensive activity.

As both the power source and the controller for the wings are too big and heavy to be on board the tiny robot themselves, Dr Fuller's previous insect, the RoboBee, had to be tethered to its power source through wires from the ground.

RoboFly is able to operate on its own. Dr Fuller's team uses a narrow and invisible laser beam pointed at a photovoltaic cell attached above RoboFly which converts the laser light into electricity.

"It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight," said co-author Dr Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor at UW's Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

Buy itself the laser does not provide enough voltage to power the wings however, so the team designed a circuit to boost the seven volts produced by the photovoltaic cell up to the 240 volts needed for the flight.

To give RoboFly its independence, the team also added a microcontroller to the same circuit.

"The microcontroller acts like a real fly's brain telling wing muscles when to fire," said Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering.

"On RoboFly, it tells the wings things like 'flap hard now' or 'don't flap'."

Specifically, the controller sends voltage in waves to mimic the fluttering of a real insect's wings.

To make RoboFly wireless, the engineers designed a flexible circuit (yellow) with a boost converter (copper coil and black boxes at left) that boosts the seven volts coming from the photovoltaic cell into the 240 volts needed for flight. This circuit also has a microcontroller brain (black square box in the top right) that lets RoboFly control its wings. Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington
Image: A flexible circuit boosts the seven volts into 240v needed for flight. Pic: MS/UW

"It uses pulses to shape the wave," said Johannes James, the lead author of the study and a mechanical engineering doctoral student.

"To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave.

"And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction."

Although RoboFly can only take off and land at the moment the team hopes it will soon be able to steer the robot using the laser.

Future versions of the device could use tiny batteries to harvest energy from radio waves, Dr Gollakota said, allowing the laser to send instructions for other tasks.

Dr Fuller said: "I'd really like to make one that finds methane leaks.

"You could buy a suitcase full of them, open it up, and they would fly around your building looking for plumes of gas coming out of leaky pipes.

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"If these robots can make it easy to find leaks, they will be much more likely to be patched up, which will reduce greenhouse emissions.

"This is inspired by real flies, which are really good at flying around looking for smelly things. So we think this is a good application for our RoboFly."

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Sky and Netflix combine to create ‘ultimate’ package

Sky and Netflix have announced details of their partnership, creating what they say will be the UK's "biggest on demand TV service".

The deal, first announced earlier this year, will see subscribers to Sky Q – Sky's premium TV box – able to access an 'Ultimate On Demand' pack for £10 extra per month.

It will allow customers of Sky, the owner of Sky News, full access to the Netflix app through their single Sky subscription, rather than having to pay Netflix separately.

Existing Sky Q customers with Netflix would be able to "easily move their account to the new pack or sign in to the Netflix app on Sky Q using their existing Netflix account details," Sky said.

The combined service will see Sky original productions such as Patrick Melrose and US shows such as HBO's Game of Thrones alongside Netflix's content, which includes The Crown and Stranger Things, for the first time.

Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip in The Crown
Image: Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip in The Crown

Chief executive of Sky's UK and Ireland operation, Stephen van Rooyen, said: "We want Sky Q to be the number one destination for TV fans.

"Partnering with Netflix means we will have all the best TV in one great value pack, making it even easier for you to watch all of your favourite shows.

Chris Whiteley, Netflix director of business development for the UK and Ireland, added: "Innovation is at the core of Netflix.

"We are delighted to partner with Sky to offer fans a new and exciting way to access the best of entertainment from around the world."

Despite the gloom, Netflix did add 5.1 million households from April to June
Image: Netflix, like Sky, has millions of subscribers in the UK and Ireland

A cross-company approach to shared content is not new to Sky after it announced late last year that it had done a deal with BT to show each other's channels.

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The surging growth of streaming services is the core reason Sky is at the centre of an ongoing takeover battle involving 21st Century Fox and Comcast.

Traditional media companies are seeking to bolster their offerings to take on the financial might of the tech firms behind the streaming trends, including Amazon with its Prime service.

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Satellite net collects space junk for the first time

By Thomas Moore, science correspondent

Debris orbiting the Earth at more than 17000 mph has been snared by a prototype 'junk hunting' satellite for the first time.

The experimental RemoveDebris satellite first released the metal object and then fired a five metre wide net to capture it from a distance of six metres.

The weight of the net will drag the toaster-sized object into the atmosphere over the next few months, where it will burn up.

Image: The techno;logy was developed at the Surrey University Space Centre

The success of the test paves the way for routine missions to clean-up the thousands of redundant satellites currently in orbit.

A NASA graphical representation of space junk orbiting the earth 0:35
Video: NASA animation of orbital space junk

RemoveDebris was designed and built by a consortium led by Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey.

Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the centre, told Sky News that he was "delighted" they had overcome the technical challenges involved.

"The difficulty that we have is that you want to capture your piece of debris with the net, you want to envelop the piece of debris, then at the same time you want to draw a string so you actually capture the thing so it can't escape," he said.

"To synchronise all this, as you can imagine, is a bit challenging."

There are thought to be half a million objects larger than a tennis ball orbiting the planet at speeds high enough to destroy satellites and even the space station.

Tracking of the space net as it closes in on the target debris
Image: Tracking of the space net as it closes in on the target debris

Only the largest pieces, mainly defunct satellites and rocket parts, can be tracked by radar.

But even objects as small as a bolt can punch a hole in the honeycomb walls of satellites and their fragile wings of solar panels.

The nightmare scenario is a collision between two satellites in ever more crowded low Earth orbit. The resulting cloud of fragments could start a chain reaction of further collisions, wiping out large numbers of satellites.

The International Space Station could be damaged by debris
Image: The International Space Station could be damaged by debris

Ingo Retat of Airbus, which was part of the project, said: "We spent six years testing in parabolic flights, in special drop towers and also thermal vacuum chambers.

"Our small team of engineers and technicians have done an amazing job moving us one step closer to clearing up low Earth orbit."

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In the coming months RemoveDebris will test navigation systems and special scanners for analysing space junk. It will also fire a harpoon at a target and then reel it in, and deploy a drag sail that could be used to pull objects out of orbit.

The mission was co-funded by the European Union.

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UK inventors win prize for stroke survivor device

By Alexander J Martin, technology reporter

A "revolutionary device" which would help rehabilitate stroke survivors has been declared the winner of a government-supported competition.

It was selected from a shortlist of 10 "garden shed inventions" which could seriously transform people's lives in the competition which was sponsored by innovation foundation Nesta.

Inventor's Prize shortlists the UK's 10 best inventions

Inventor's Prize shortlists the UK's 10 best inventions

A 3D printable prosthetic arm and a "Kindle for blind people" are among the inventions selected by the National Inventor Prize

The winning invention, Neuroball, is a device developed by UK-based company Neurofenix, and it allows people who have suffered a stroke to engage in rehabilitation exercises.

Inspired by relatives of the firm's co-founders who suffered strokes, Neurofenix aims to improve the life of stroke survivors who may not receive enough support after they leave hospital.

By connecting to an online platform, the device enables patients to improve dexterity in their hand and arm in competitive and collaborative training.

The team behind the device have been announced as the winners of the Inventors Prize, launched as part of the government's industrial strategy last year.

They will be given £50,000 to help get their product to market, where it could be used to help the 1.2 million stroke survivors in the UK – with 100,000 more occurring every year.

"We are so excited to be selected as the winners of the Inventor Prize, from the nine other brilliant and inspiring entrepreneurs," said the Neurofenix team.

Urologic's NuCatheter device won second place in the prize
Image: Urologic's NuCatheter device won second prize in the competition

The competition was launched to find "Britain's grassroots and garden shed inventors" and the £15,000 prize for second-place went to Cambridge-based Urologic for their NuCath catheter device.

In the UK over 500,000 serious urinary tract infections per year are contracted as a result of indwelling catheters, and these account for up to 40% of all hospital-acquired infections – with an annual mortality rate of over 2,000.

The estimated cost to the NHS of treating these infections is around £2bn annually.

The third prize of £5,000 was awarded to Edward Rogers for developing the Canute, essentially a "Kindle for blind people", which Bristol Braille have been working on in collaboration with the blind community, including Steph Sergeant, for five years.

The Canute machine designed by Bristol Braille. Pic: Bristol Braille Technology CIC
Image: The Canute 'kindle for Braille' machine scooped the third prize

The business secretary Greg Clark congratulated the three winning inventors, saying: "Britain's makers, innovators and entrepreneurs are a huge asset to our country, adding billions to the UK economy and supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs."

"And the Inventor Prize has uncovered the fact that there are hundreds of people like this, in every corner of our country," added Mr Clark.

"While we wish to encourage every inventor out there, today we're excited to see The Inventor Prize award going to Neurofenix, as we believe this invention has the potential to truly impact society and we cannot wait to see the product enter the market."

Nesta's head of international development, Constance Agyeman, said: "We've certainly witnessed our 10 shortlisted finalists going on incredible journeys as they turn their dreams into reality."

The competitors have received "financial support and professional mentoring helping them develop their prototypes, source invaluable partners and suppliers and [to] create business plans", said Ms Agyeman.

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"We now hope all our entrants have been given the confidence and expertise they need to turn their ideas into real products and that they too continue their journeys."

"But we are especially excited to support our three overall winners in getting their products into the hands of consumers," she added.

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