|image: National Geographic|
Micro Air Vehicles (MAV) are the official name for the growing array of tiny robots that have begun to take flight. The reconstruction of nature is seen by researchers as the best way to introduce MAV on a wide scale. A group of even smaller surveillance drones called NAV (nano air vehicles) already have been commissioned based on this final hurdle being overcome: mapleseed drones; sparrow drones by 2015, and dragonfly drones to fly in swarms by 2030. Or how about a sky full of drones modeled from jellyfish?
RoboBee already has taken flight in search of an answer for autonomous pollination, search and rescue, hazardous exploration, military surveillance, climate mapping, and traffic monitoring – to name a few of the slated functions.
The scientific propaganda for the development of these drones is always important to note, as it represents how these will be sold to a lay audience unfamiliar with military applications. The press release below comes from 14 research teams currently tasked with introducing mini-drones to the elements so that they can eventually fly right alongside nature in any environment. 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.”
Hidden in plain sight.
Based on the mechanisms adopted by birds, bats, insects and snakes, 14 distinguished research teams have developed solutions to some of the common problems that drones could be faced with when navigating through an urban environment and performing novel tasks for the benefit of society. (emphasis added)
This one statement leaves very little doubt that it’s full steam ahead for permitting military development to once again trickle into everyday life.
Here is how the Air Force envisions using these vehicles. Please keep this video in mind when reading about all of the “benefits” that are addressed as the press release concludes below.
Whether this is avoiding obstacles, picking up and delivering items or improving the take-off and landing on tricky surfaces, it is hoped the solutions can lead to the deployment of drones in complex urban environments in a number of different ways, from military surveillance and search and rescue efforts to flying camera phones and reliable courier services. For this, drones need exquisite flight control.
The research teams have presented their work today, 23 May, in a special issue of IOP Publishing’s journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, devoted to bio-inspired flight control.
The first small drones have already been used in search and rescue operations to investigate difficult-to-reach and hazardous areas, such as in Fukushima, Japan. A research team from Hungary believe these efforts could be improved if robots are able to work in tandem, and have developed an algorithm that allows a number of drones to fly together like a flock of birds.
The effectiveness of the algorithm was demonstrated by using it to direct the movements of a flock of nine individual quadcopters whilst they followed a moving car.
While this collective movement may be helpful when searching vast expanses of land, a group of researchers from Harvard University have developed a millimetre-sized drone with a view to using it to explore extremely cramped and tight spaces.
The microrobot they designed, which was the size of a one cent coin, could take off and land and hover in the air for sustained periods of time. In their new paper, the researchers have demonstrated the first simple, fly-like manoeuvres. In the future, millimetre-sized drones could also be used in assisted agriculture pollination and reconnaissance, and could aid future studies of insect flight.
Once deployed into the real world, drones will be faced with the extremely tricky task of dealing with the elements, which could be extreme heat, the freezing cold, torrential rain or thunderstorms.
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The most challenging problem for airborne robots will be strong winds and whirlwinds, which a research team, from the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill, University of California and The Johns Hopkins University, have begun to tackle by studying the hawk moth.
In their study, the researchers flew hawk moths through a number of different whirlwind conditions in a vortex chamber, carefully examining the mechanisms that the hawk moths used to successfully regain flight control.
Researchers must also find a way of reducing the amount of power that is required to operate drones, which a team from the Université de Sherbrooke and Stanford University have achieved by creating a “jumpglider”.
Inspired by vertebrates like the flying squirrel, the flying fish and the flying snake, which use their aerodynamic bodies to extend their jumping range to avoid predators, the “jumpglider” combines an aeroplane-shaped body with a spring-based mechanical foot that propels the robot into the air.
The researchers believe the “jumpglider” can be used in search and rescue efforts, operating at low power and offering a significant advantage over land-based robots by being able to navigate around obstacles and over rough terrain.
In his opening editorial, Guest Editor of the special issue, Dr David Lentink, from Stanford University, writes: “Flying animals can be found everywhere in our cities. From scavenging pigeons to alcohol-sniffing fruit flies that make precision landings on our wine glasses, these animals have quickly learnt how to control their flight through urban environments to exploit our resources.
“To enable our drones to fly equally well in wind and clutter, we need to solve several flight control challenges during all flight phases: take-off, cruising, and landing.
“This special issue provides a unique integration between biological studies of animals and bio-inspired engineering solutions. Each of the 14 papers presented in this special issue offer a unique perspective on bio-mimetic flight, providing insights and solutions to the take-off, obstacle avoidance, in-flight grasping, swarming, and landing capabilities that urban drones need to succeed.”
From Thursday 23 May, the special issue can be downloaded for free from http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-3190/9/2
A full package of videos and images can be downloaded from here – https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ufb4nq9stvyqja3/AADfEPGFAPqpijugkMrKK1Zda
And it’s not only the air; drones have been set out to sea for weather collection data, protecting reefs, mapping the ocean floor, eating ocean garbage and other supposedly beneficial endeavors. However, once again, there is another side: DARPA is setting drones loose in the sea as part of their Hydra System which aims to connect various platforms into one overall surveillance grid for the ocean.
“The climate of budget austerity runs up against an uncertain security environment that includes natural disasters, piracy, ungoverned states, and the proliferation of sophisticated defense technologies,” said Scott Littlefield, DARPA program manager, in a statement. “An unmanned technology infrastructure staged below the oceans’ surface could relieve some of that resource strain and expand military capabilities in this increasingly challenging space.”
And that system seems clumsy compared to the plans for robot fish and all that could be offered by modeling other sea creatures.
With the skies above covered by integrated airborne military systems like MUSIC including an array of MAV, and the seas below covered by Hydra and impending miniaturization there as well, we’re quickly heading toward complete autonomous drone coverage anywhere on earth — and we’ll never see it coming. All done with altruistic goals in mind? Highly doubtful.
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