A small insect or a mosquito over your ear may now be much more than simply annoying. They could easily be micro drones which now come in a swarm of bug-sized flying spies.
|An image from NetworkWorld.com|
The University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab showed off a network of 20 nano-quad rotors capable of agile flight, which could swarm and navigate in an environment with obstacles.
This is another step away from bulky heavily armed aerial vehicles or humanoid robots to a much smaller level of tiny remote-control devices. While current drones lack manoeuvrability, can't hover and move fast enough, these new devices will be able to land precisely and fly off again at speed. One day the military hopes they may prove a crucial tactical advantage in wars and could even save lives in disasters. They can also be helpful inside caves and barricaded rooms to send back real-time intelligence about the people and weapons inside.
A report in NetworkWorld online news suggests the research is based on the mechanics of insects, which potentially can be reverse-engineered to design midget machines to scout battlefields and search for victims trapped in rubble.
|Photo: An image from NetworkWorld.com|
Zoologist Richard Bomphrey has told the British Daily Mail newspaper he has conducted research to generate new insight into how insect wings have evolved over the last 350 million years.
"By learning those lessons, our findings will make it possible to aerodynamically engineer a new breed of surveillance vehicles that, because they are as small as insects and also fly like them, completely blend into their surroundings," the newspaper quotes him as saying.
The U.S. Department of Defense has turned its attention to miniature drones.
As early as 2007 the U.S. was accused of secretly developing robotic insect spies when anti-war protesters in the U.S. saw some flying objects similar to dragonflies or little helicopters hovering above them. No government agency has admitted to developing insect-size spy drones though some official and private organizations have admitted that they were trying.
In 2008, the U.S. Air Force showed off bug-sized spies as "tiny as bumblebees" that would not be detected when flying into buildings to "photograph, record, and even attack insurgents and terrorists."
That same year the U.S. government's military research agency (DARPA) conducted a symposium discussing "bugs, bots, borgs and bio-weapons."
|Photo: A captured video of a swarm of Nano Qardrotors, posted at GRASP Laboratory website|
Lockheed Martin's Intelligent Robotics Laboratories has unveiled "maple-seed-like" drones called Samarai that also mimic nature. U.S. troops could throw them like a boomerang to see real-time images of what's around the next corner.
The U.S. is not alone in miniaturizing drones that imitate nature: France, the Netherlands and Israel are also developing similar devices.
Israel ahead of the game?
Israel's latest project — a butterfly-shaped drone weighing just 20 grams — the smallest in its range so far – can gather intelligence inside buildings.
|Israeli "butterfly" UAV. Photo: Israel Hayom (http://www.israelhayom.co.il)|
The insect-drone, with its 0.15-gram camera and memory card, is managed remotely with a special helmet. Putting on the helmet, you find yourself in the "butterfly's cockpit" and virtually see what the butterfly sees – in real time.
"The butterfly's advantage is its ability to fly in an enclosed environment. There is no other aerial vehicle that can do that today," Dubi Binyamini, head of IAI's mini-robotics department, told Israel Hayom.
Structures under observation can be anything from train stations or airport terminals – or office buildings – to battlefields and even forests in, say, southern Lebanon, where Israel believes Hizbullah hides its ambush squads.
The virtually noiseless "butterfly" flaps its four wings 14 times per second. Almost translucent, it looks like an overgrown moth, but is still smaller than some natural butterflies.
The IAI, Israel's major aerospace and aviation manufacturer, needs two more years to polish their "butterfly" project. The product seems to fall into the trend of reducing drone size. Their recent models promoted for city observation and conflicts were the Ghost, weighing 4 kg, and Mosquito, which weighs only 500 grams.
While the "butterfly" may bring "a real technological revolution," as the developer predicts, to the military field, questions remain how it will change civil life. The drone is also propped up for police use and there is little doubt that secret services will be only too happy to grab such an intricate weapon.