First Wireless Robotic Insect Takes Flight

Engineers at the University of Washington recently unveiled their RoboFly, a cordless robot with independent flaps for flying. The unit utilizes an embedded circuit and photovoltaic cell to convert energy from a laser into electricity that powers its wings. The circuit boosts the seven volts emanating from the photovoltaic cell up to the 240 volts needed for flight.

To give RoboFly control over its wings, the team also provided a brain of sorts. An embedded microcontroller running off that same power circuit tells the RoboFly how hard to flap or when not to move. The amount of movement is managed by adjusting the rapidity of the pulses sent from the circuit to the controller.

The weight and size of these components had traditionally been the obstacle to developing such robots, as the power and control modules were too heavy for a miniature design. This limitation resulted in a wire or tether being needed to connect the unit and its power source.

Insect-sized flying robots could fit a number of applications, including monitoring crop status on farms, identifying gas leaks, or helping explore damaged buildings. The fact that they’re relatively cheap to produce and can easily slip into tight places inaccessible to larger drones are key features.

For now, RoboFly is limited to only take off and land, as once the photovoltaic cell is out of the laser’s direct line of sight, it runs out of power and lands. Future plans will be aimed towards steering the laser to allow for hovering and more precise movements. The team also hopes to develop small batteries or develop ways to harvest energy from radio frequency signals to better manage the RoboFly’s power.



  1. University of Washington. (2018, May 15). The first wireless flying robotic insect takes off. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 17, 2018 from


Image Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington News/

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