The Pentagon is pouring millions of dollars into the development of tiny drones inspired by biology – such as the hummingbird – each equipped with video and audio equipment that can record sights and sounds.
They could be used to spy, but also to locate people inside earthquake-crumpled buildings and detect hazardous chemical leaks.
Besides the hummingbird, engineers in the growing unmanned aircraft industry are working on drones that look like insects and the helicopter-like maple leaf seed. Researchers are even exploring ways to implant surveillance and other equipment into an insect as it is undergoing metamorphosis in a bid to control the creature.
The devices could end up being used by police officers and firefighters, but their potential use outside of battle zones is raising questions about privacy and the dangers of the winged creatures buzzing around in the same skies as aircraft.
With a 6.5in wing span, the remote-controlled bird weighs less than a AA battery and can fly at up to 11mph, propelled only by the flapping of its two wings. A tiny video camera sits in its belly. The bird can climb and descend vertically, fly sideways, forward and backward. It can rotate clockwise and anti-clockwise. Most of all it can hover and perch on a window ledge while it gathers intelligence, unbeknownst to the enemy.
The Pentagon asked California’s AeroVironment to develop a pocket-sized aircraft for surveillance and reconnaissance that mimicked biology. It could be anything, they said, from a dragonfly to a hummingbird. Five years and four million dollars later, the company has developed what it calls the world’s first hummingbird spy plane. AeroVironment has a history of developing such aircraft.
Over the decades, the Monrovia company has developed everything from a flying mechanical reptile to a hydrogen-powered plane capable of flying in the stratosphere and surveying an area larger than Afghanistan at one glance.
The hummingbird drone “paves the way for a new generation of aircraft with the agility and appearance of small birds”, said Todd Hylton of the Pentagon’s research arm, Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Lockheed Martin has developed a fake maple leaf seed, or so-called whirly bird, loaded with navigation equipment and imaging sensors. The spy plane weighs .07 ounces (200 grams).
On the far end of the research spectrum, DARPA is also exploring the possibility of implanting live insects during metamorphosis with video cameras or sensors and controlling them by applying electrical stimulation to their wings. The idea is for the military to be able to send in a swarm of bugs loaded with spy gear. The military is also eyeing other uses.