Pentagon working on hummingbird-sized spy drones
A new Pentagon project aims to produce unmanned nano aerial vehicles that can be launched by soldiers in crowded urban areas to spy on enemy positions.
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Most of the excitement has been about the platform and getting devices in the air and keeping them there. But the payoff for NAVs is in the payload. "A lot of people can build aircraft that fly," Neil Adams told TechNewsDaily. "Making them work is the critical element."
Adams is director of tactical systems programs for Draper Laboratory, one of the participants in the first round of DARPA’s NAV program.
Draper is a systems integrator that develops the mission management, vehicle management and communications and ground control systems that make NAVs smart. "What we do is the 'missionization' of these vehicles," Adams said. In creating the payload for one of these tiny devices, he said, "weight is always the issue. The size of payloads has to be designed with plenty of margin."
Because the normal operating environment for NAVS is congested urban areas with little or no GPS signal availability, navigation is also a critical element, said Adam. Much of Draper’s work focuses on vision-based sensors and systems. "If you don’t have GPS or you have only intermittent GPS, most of these things will fall out of the sky in a few seconds," he said.
The enemies of success in the NAV world are size, weight and power (SWaP), said Sean Humbert, a professor in the Aerospace Engineering department at the University of Maryland who specializes in Nano Air Vehicles.
SWaP places great limitations on the intelligence that can be built into NAVs to let them operate autonomously. Researchers are looking at insects and their nerve physiology for clues about how to design better nervous systems for NAVs. "Little bugs don’t carry around a Pentium processor," Humbert said. And yet they’re remarkably good at doing what they need to do. Perhaps, he said, if we learn what’s going on in their brains we can follow their lead.
Humbert’s department is studying bio-inspired microsystem technologies as the principal member of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Micro Autonomous Science and Technology (MAST) Collaborative Technology Alliance (CTA) Center.
"A lot of structures in insects are multifunctional," he said. "Biologically, they’re multitasking."
The research is still in its early stages. "A lot of seminal research needs to be done," Adams said, adding that the missionization of NAVs, though, is not that far away.
"Within 10 to 15 years, autonomous microsystems will be on the battlefield."
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