And they?ll take their first flight in a freaky ?Micro-Aviary? in Ohio, where engineers make mini-machines modeled on those creatures of the sky.
Miniaturization is a major trend in drone tech. The Army?s new Switchblade drone is a semi-autonomous missile shot out of a mortar tube for kamikaze missions. Some robotic aircraft manufacturers, like the micro-machinists at AeroVironment, have even started experimenting with super-small drones that look like hummingbirds ? and even dragonflies.
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The Navy took the next step. Rather than merely modeling a drone chassis on a bird or insect, the Navy started studying the behavioral and migratory patterns of birds, fish and bats to develop a more realistic robot facsimile.
The Air Force, however, is taking the step beyond that.
At the Micro-Aviary at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, researchers rig the walls with super-sensitive motion capture sensors that track a tiny plane or helicopter?s position ?within about a tenth of an inch,? according to researcher Greg Parker.
Information from those sensors helps engineers develop ?flapping-wing flight? drones ? ?very, very small flapping-wing vehicles,? in Parker?s phrase.
And how. One of the vehicles on display in the video above, released by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Pat, is a robot dragonfly. It doesn?t appear to be much more than a circuit board, a super-tiny motor and two insect-like wings. And it fits, like a bug, on the tip of someone?s finger.
Fitting a camera on a drone that small is a the next hurdle that miniaturization tech will have to clear if the ?Micro-Aviary?s? birds are to be practical. Another option: Engage in a little insect vivisection to create a swarm of spying cyborg bugs.
That extremely gross goal is the point of Darpa?s Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) program. To ?provide control over insect locomotion? One researcher in 2008 inserted a mechanized system into a moth?s thorax during its larval stage. Insect tissue actually grew around the machine.
Still, that?s, er, gross. The Air Force?s Micro-Aviary is a lot less creepy and arguably more practical. In a few years, the chirp you hear from the bird perched on the telephone line outside your apartment might be the whir of a robotic hummingbird as its camera adjusts its aperture.