Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Aerial surveillance with a robot hummingbird

The November issue of Popular Mechanics had a one-page article that caught my attention.  It described a robotic hummingbird about the size of a real hummingbird, with the key difference being the robot carries a camera. 

A company called AeroVironment designed this tiny robot bird, which can sit in the palm of your hand.  It has no propellers, and flies by flapping its wings, just like a real bird.  The Nano Hummingbird contains a camera, motors for its wings, a battery for power, and a radio transmitter that streams color video, all in a package that weighs less than one AA battery.

It also has an impressive speed of 11 miles per hour.  This may not sound fast, until you consider that it can fly straight paths above obstacles, and is considerably faster than most people can run. 

Aerovironment also makes a range of small unmanned aerial vehicles for the US military, including the Wasp, Raven and Puma, but they are all much larger than the Nano Hummingbird.  The article mentioned the US military hopes this invention will be the first of a new class of aerial surveillance robots.  These robots could fly both indoors and outside to identify targets and collect intelligence.

As with most technologies, this has the potential for good or bad.  I shudder when I think about a future where swarms of small UAVs fly through our cities, constantly watching us.  On the other hand, there are many possible uses for vehicles like these.  Imagine if we could fly them into buildings that are on fire to locate injured people.  Or use them to find people lost at sea or in the wilderness.

Either way, it won't be long before you'll see a bird fly by and wonder if it's a bird...or a robot.

(Here's the link to the original Popular Mechanics article.  And a link to AeroVironment's site.  The pic is from Popular Mechanics.)


  1. That is incredible! Cool post!

  2. Thanks! This stuff simultaneously fascinates and scares me.

  3. Do you think there's any truth to the reports of the supposed uber-secret "mosquito" that the Navy developed? A remote-controlled flying critter the size of a bug, used for surveillance and other secret goodies sounds pretty cool to me, and with the current state of nanotech, pretty plausible, too.

  4. I've read about cockroach-sized robots, but I haven't seen anything about mosquito 'bots. If you ditched the battery and ran it off solar cells on its body...maybe? I think the range and speed would be very limited, and a 'bot that light would be vulnerable to wind or heavy rain or snow. Still, it may be possible. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams is a book read as a kid (10-12 years old). Danny was friends with Professor Bullfinch and they accidentally invented a crystal semiconductor that they used in a remote control dragonfly. There were many adventures with this dragonfly starting with simple spying on classmates to the Russians chasing them down for the technology. That's what I like about science fiction, as time goes by the fiction part is sometimes fact. The Danny Dunn series was written in the mid 1970's.

  6. I wonder if any of the engineers at AeroVironment or Darpa read those Danny Dunn books as a kid?