Dragonfly: World’s Smallest Autonomous Drone Takes Flight

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Nicholas West
Activist Post

The mimicking of nature heralds a new focus in the development of drones.  While DARPA and their contractors have been working on true nano surveillance with biological components, it is the modeling of insects that is currently being released to the public.

Recently we have seen Robobee take flight as a possible replacement for our rapidly dwindling natural pollinators. But the dual use applications for surveillance and even human targeting are ever present. As drone expert, P.W. Singer said, “At this point, it doesn’t really matter if you are against the technology, because it’s coming.” According to Singer, “The miniaturization of drones is where it really gets interesting. You can use these things anywhere, put them anyplace, and the target will never even know they’re being watched.”

The following Air Force video leaves no doubt:

Enter the Dragonfly “DelFly” explorer drone recently developed by Dutch scientists. It is the smallest and lightest in the world and it is capable of autonomous decision making.

The Dragonfly drone is part of a growing category of Micro Air Vehicles and their smaller counterparts Nano Air Vehicles. In 2007, Wired discussed the fact that miniaturized dragonfly drone models were being developed by the CIA as early as the 1970s:

Developed during the 1970s, the CIA has displayed a mock-up of the micro UAV in its museum at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia since 2003. However until now no media organisation has been given access to the material that proved that the artificial dragonfly had been flight tested.

…. In the 1970s the CIA was interested in the dragonfly concept as a small unmanned surveillance device. Flight cannot reveal exactly what materials have been seen, but can confirm the four-winged robotic insect achieved sustained flight…. The CIA’s entomopter dragonfly’s power supply and actuation system for its wings are still highly classified subjects. (Source)

Wired goes on to explain that the first dragonfly model was a nearly direct replica of a true dragonfly, but was unable to handle crosswinds, and did not possess a proper power source for long-range sustained surveillance.

The Dutch team at Delft University has now created a model which looks much less like a real dragonfly, but appears to have solved some of the flight issues by employing flapping wings and the ability to autonomously avoid obstacles. It avoids these obstacles in a unique way: 3D vision.

The micro aircraft has now been fitted with a new system of . The vision system weighs only four grams and consists of two cameras and a tiny computer. By combining the images of both cameras, the distances to obstacles are determined in the same way as in humans with two eyes. The tiny computer processes the images as soon as they are received so that the DelFly knows precisely where obstacles are located.

It’s small size (less than an ounce and 11-inches long) and on-board computing offer the drone complete autonomy from human control:

The DelFly Explorer can perform an autonomous take-off, maintain its height, and avoid obstacles for as long as its battery lasts (~9 minutes). All sensing and processing is performed on board, so no human or offboard computer needs to be in the loop.

It is believed that its small size and excellent visual awareness coupled with recording ability will have practical applications:

…the robot dragonfly could be used in situations where much heavier quadcopters with spinning blades would be hazardous, such as flying over the audience to film a concert or sport event.


“It can for instance also be used to fly around and detect ripe fruit in greenhouses,” De Croon said, with an eye on the Netherlands’ vast indoor fruit-growing business.

“Or imagine, for the first time there could be an autonomous flying fairy in a theme park,” he said.


Different algorithms would allow it to perform different tasks, and because it is autonomous it could be sent into enclosed spaces such as concrete buildings or mine shafts, where radio control would be impossible, to search for casualties or hazards.

Wow, all of those applications and yet no mention of government surveillance. It’s just “Fun, Functional, and Friendly” as stated in the promo video.

It is de rigueur for this type of tech press release to offer the public all of the benefits that are being sought for our safety and entertainment. Meanwhile, all of this is trickling down from the military-industrial complex.

The scientists go on to say that a sufficient power source is still elusive to enable swarm capabilities – and, in fact, may be “decades away,” but given the fact that we are just now being introduced to a concept which began in at least the ’70s from the CIA it’s doubtful that it’s that far off, if not here already.

Returning to the Wired article from 2007, they cite the following from a reader comment:

During the Republican National Convention in 2004, I swear I saw a jet-black dragonfly hovering about 10 feet off the ground, precisely in the middle of 7th avenue. About six blocks later, marching toward Madison Sq. Garden, I saw another. Hovering. Motionless but for the wings beating. Dead center of the street, ten feet off the ground. Watching us.

In other words, I’m pretty sure smaller and stealthier gadgets are already in use for surveillance. Call me crazy.

Crazy? Return to the first video above from the U.S. Air Force to hear again the explanation of how these insect drones will harvest power from the environment for long-range cooperative swarm flight surveillance and targeting, and the only thing that’s crazy is not to at least entertain the idea that we’re only getting the smallest fraction of the full story.


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