Civilian researchers and military personnel in the Air Vehicles Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio are working on miniature biomimetic aerial robots capable of operating for days or weeks at a time called micro aerial vehicles (MAVs). They hope to have viable bird-sized MAVs deployed by 2015 and insect-sized MAVs by 2030.
Very small unmanned aerial vehicles already exist, most notably the 28 inch long Wasp currently deployed in surveillance missions by British Special Forces units. However, the Wasp can remain in the air for less than two hours at a time. The new U.S. Air Force initiative hopes to increases endurance while decreasing the size of the unit. Researchers hope the new MAVs will remain active for days or even weeks at a time, flying at 50 or 100 feet high. The smaller size and improved endurance will provide a significant advantage in urban and other high-density environments.
The research team is investigating non-traditional power sources for these MAVs to increase their endurance. One possibility is drawing power from nearby overhead electrical lines found in the theater of operation. They’re also investigating solar power, although that would require a significant increase in current energy gathering technologies given the proposed size of the drones.
Another potential problem area is landing. Miniaturization opens up a whole new realm of possible landing sites such as the edge of a roof or a power line. Researchers need to determine how to safely handle a variety of such sites – or how to avoid them without losing the ability to blend into the environment just like a bird or an insect.
The team is also determining a feasible payload for the drones. Even with miniaturization, loading each robot with a camera, microphone, battery, communications, and other necessary equipment will be difficult. This may be the largest limiting factor to the overall miniaturization of the MAVs.
New materials may also be necessary to make such small vehicles resistant to collisions and bumping into their surroundings. Real insects have the ability to collide with buildings and other structures and keep going. Researchers hope their MAVs will have the same ability, perhaps enabling this through the use of elastic materials whenever possible.
There are many potential uses for these small flying robots. Surveillance is a big one, as are specific search missions aimed at discovering the whereabouts of a specific individual or object. Swarms of smaller vehicles could be released from a central point, seeking out their quarry in all directions at once. It is also possible MAVs could be armed at some point, but no specific plans for weapons have been released at this point in time.
TFOT has previously reported on a robotic fly under development at the Harvard University as well as other biomimetic robots including the GhostSwimmer aquatic spy vehicle, a jumping robot inspired by grasshoppers, and a spy plane inspired by bats. In addition, TFOT has covered another collective robotics system consisting of voltage-controlled microelectromechanical microbots and another robotics system capable of swarm behaviors.
You can read more about the Air Force Research Laboratory here.