Sawyer Fuller creates biologically-inspired sensors, control systems,
and mechanical designs targeted at insect-sized air and ground vehicles,
and investigates the flight systems of aerial insects. He completed his
Ph.D. in Biological Engineering at the California Institute of
Technology and B.S. and M.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to his work in insect
flight control, he also developed a frog-hopping robot at the NASA Jet
Propulsion Laboratory and invented an ink-jet printer capable of
fabricating millimeter-scale 3D metal machines at the MIT Media Lab. He
is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship
and a Presidential Fellowship from MIT. His work has appeared in Science
and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
- Ph.D. Bioengineering, California Institute of Technology, 2011
- M.S. Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003
- B.S. Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000
Professor Fuller directs the Autonomous Insect Robotics Laboratory at the University of Washington, which works to advance insect-scale robotics engineering and better understand the capabilities of insects.
How can you create a fully autonomous robot as small as a fly? This is an open challenge because scaling physics makes traditional approaches impractical. My research takes inspiration from insects to overcome this, producing operational insect-scale prototypes.
Insect-scale robots—measuring approximately a centimeter across—have unique capabilities not shared by larger robots. For example, they could deploy in very large swarms or navigate tiny spaces to perform detailed environmental monitoring. But insect scale imposes miniaturization challenges: it is not enough to simply reduce component size. Many conventional robot and aircraft technologies like electric motors, GPS sensing, gliding flight, and even general-purpose microprocessors, cannot operate efficiently or effectively at insect scale. This is because dominant physical effects change as scale reduces. One way to overcome this is to look to solutions used by biology. For example, rather than gliding like birds, flies and bees continually flap their wings as an adaptation to the greater effect of viscous drag at small scale. More than that, insects have superlative capabilities that outclass current robots. Watch as a honeybee navigates to a flower and then deftly lands on it while buffeted by wind—all of which is orchestrated by a tiny brain. These animals point the way toward future insect robotics that satisfy scaling constraints while navigating with speed and agility through complex, uncertain environments.
My work aims to take inspiration from insects to find scale-compatible solutions for centimeter-scale robots. My approach combines experimental study on insects—whose feedback systems are not well understood—with at-scale robotic implementations. Basic flight mechanics and simple sensing systems have been demonstrated on insect robot prototypes, but there remain many unsolved problems. In particular, solutions to the following do not yet exist: performing control computations onboard, achieving sensor autonomy (no external sensors), and incorporating the power source onboard. Rivaling the performance of insects remains a distant target. I strongly believe that progress will be fastest by combining forward-engineering in robotics with reverse-engineering in biology. The results will extend beyond insect robots to anywhere there is a need for miniaturized and power-efficient sensing, power-efficient control systems, and more dynamic, robust, and lifelike robots. The effort may also give unique insights into the operation of the brain. Areas of particular interest to me are computation-constrained visual navigation, odor plume localization, and the interplay of control and mechanics.
- G.C.H.E. de Croon, J.J.G. Dupeyroux, S.B. Fuller, and J.A.R. Marshall, “Insect-inspired Artificial Intelligence for Autonomous Robots,” Science Robotics (June 2022).
- S. B. Fuller, B. Greiner, J. Moore, R. M. Murray, R. van Paasen, and Rory Yorke, “The Python Control Systems Library (python-control),” IEEE Conf. Decision and Control (CDC) (Austin, Texas, December 2021).
- Y. M. Chukewad, J. M. James, A. Singh, and S. B. Fuller, “RoboFly: An insect-sized robot with simplified fabrication that is capable of flight, ground, and water surface locomotion,” IEEE Transactions on Robotics (2021) Vol. 37, No. 6, pp. 2025–2040.
- J. M. James and S. B. Fuller, “A high-voltage power electronics unit for flying insect robots that can modulate wing thrust”, IEEE Int. Conf. Robotics and Automation (ICRA) (Xi’an, China, May 2021).
- M. J. Anderson, J. G. Sullivan, T. Horiuchi, S. B. Fuller, and T. L. Daniel, “A bio-hybrid odor-guided autonomous palm-sized air vehicle,” Bioinspiration and Biomimetics (2020) Vol. 16, No. 2, p. 026002.
- J. James, V. Iyer, Y. Chukewad, S. Gollakota, and S. B. Fuller, “Liftoff of a 190 mg laser-powered aerial vehicle: The lightest wireless robot to fly,” IEEE Int. Conf. Robotics and Automation (ICRA) (Brisbane, Australia, May 2018).
- S. B. Fuller, E. J. Wilhelm, and J. M. Jacobson. “Ink-jet printed nanoparticle micro-electromechanical systems,” IEEE/ASME J. Micro-electromechanical Systems (2002) Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 54–60.
- M. A. Graule, P. Chirarattananon, S. B. Fuller, N. T. Jafferis, K. Y. Ma, M. Spenko, R. Kornbluh, and R. J. Wood, “Perching and takeoff of a robotic insect on natural and artificial overhangs using switchable electrostatic adhesion,” Science (2016), Vol. 352, No. 6288, pp. 978-982.
- S. B. Fuller, A. D. Straw, M. Peek, R. M. Murray, and M. H. Dickinson, “Flying Drosophila stabilize their vision-based velocity controller by sensing wind with their antennae,” Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. (2014) Vol. 111., No. 13, pp. E1182-1191.
- K. Y. Ma, P. Chirarattananon, S. B. Fuller, and R. J. Wood, “Controlled flight of a biologically-inspired, insect-scale robot,” Science (2013) Vol. 340, No. 6132, pp. 603-607.
Applying insect intelligence to micro-robots
A new review paper co-written by ME Assistant Professor Sawyer Fuller makes the case for drawing inspiration from insects to create AI for autonomous micro-robots.
New grant supports insect-scale flight system
NSF has awarded the Autonomous Insect Robotics Lab, led by ME’s Sawyer Fuller, a grant to develop control systems for flying robots that weigh just fractions of an ounce.
A new bio-hybrid drone uses a moth antenna to autonomously sniff out odors.