The Nano Hummingbird surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft developed by AeroVironment, Inc.

Drones are making a lot of news these days. Not only are they being used as offensive weapons to target insurgents and terrorists, but are also playing a role intelligence and surveillance, whether that be for wartime purposes, criminal information, border monitoring, or even controversial civilian surveillance.

Some of the most interesting developments in drone technology are taking place on a much smaller scale. Tiny remote-controlled vehicles that are inspired by the physics of flying insects and birds are under development.

The race is on to make robotic vehicles that are both agile and diminutive. Darpa has been working on the concept for years. They recently demonstrated flight with their “Nano Hummingbird” vehicle that weighs less than an ounce and uses flapping wings for flight and control.

France has also developed flapping wing miniature drones. The British firm BCB International has demonstrated a functional surveillance drone that holds two video cameras, can hover quietly or perch on ledges, returns home when its battery is low, and weighs only about three ounces.

As you can imagine, such micro air vehicles, or MAVs, will be extremely valuable as they become a practical reality. They are ideal vehicles to surreptitiously scout enemy territory, criminal hideouts, or effectively search among rubble for victims of natural disasters.

They are also filling a functional gap — aircraft can’t hover, and helicopters, relative to their size, can’t go fast. Moreover, neither one is small.

Size yields advantages in not only in detectability, but in recognition as man made even if seen. Imagine a tiny military vehicle the size of a fly that can fly inside a cave and gather real-time intelligence on what is transpiring there.

The inspiration for these next generation of drone vehicles comes from nature. One area that I am becoming increasingly involved with for insights into product development and innovation is biomimicry — looking to nature for solutions. Here with these new super miniature MAVs, the effort is being dubbed nano-biomimicry.

Using nano-biomimicry, work is under way to develop drones with birdlike and insect-like wings for flight, bug-like eyes for visual surveillance, batlike ears for navigation, and even bee-like hairs or filaments for detection of chemical or biological threats.

Humans have been flying for about a hundred years, so no doubt we can learn a lot from the 400 or so million years of the evolution of flying birds and insects. The problem of flight has been solved ingeniously by nature. Insects are able to take off almost immediately at flight speed, can hover, and have an incredible ability to quickly land with precision and blend into the surroundings.

Beyond the development of engineered miniature vehicles, there is even talk of hijacking real insects, tapping into their nerves with electrodes and “remote controlling” their movement. It sounds like science fiction for sure, but the possibility is real. Scientists have already developed such systems for rats and sharks.

With ongoing military engagements, recent concerns over border protection, and increased funding for Homeland Security-related efforts, the demand for miniature drones and vehicles, in many forms, is only going to grow.

In the research and development world of drones, much like high-tech electronics, smaller most definitely has its advantages.

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