A company using Pentagon funding has developed a miniature spy plane dubbed the Nano Hummingbird. The little flying machine is built to look like a bird for potential use in spy missions, possibly in urban areas. The battery-powered drone was built by AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, CA, for the Pentagon’s research arm as part of a series of experiments in nanotechnology. The Hummingbird is the result of a five-year effort, announced Thursday by the company and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Experts say a flying “hummingbird-like” aircraft is a step toward technology that could produce drones capable of flying through open windows or sitting on power lines, capturing audio and video while enemies would be none the wiser. The camera-equipped drone can fly at speeds of up to 11 miles per hour, hover, and fly sideways, backward and forward as well as turn clockwise and counterclockwise, all by remote control. The two-wing, flapping aircraft carries its own energy source, and uses only the flapping wings for propulsion and control.
Not only does the robot resemble its avian inspiration in size (it’s only slightly larger than a hummingbird, with a 6.5-inch wingspan and a weight of 19 grams), it also looks impressively like a hummingbird in flight. “The miniaturization of drones is where it really gets interesting,” defense expert Peter W. Singer, author of a book about robotic warfare, said. “You can use these things anywhere, put them anyplace, and the target will never even know they’re being watched.”
From my experience with drones, I would assume that the same video that is being used for surveillance is also used by the remote pilot, to fly the airplane. The ability to hover and perform vertical takeoffs and landing means that the drone can be flown to a position and “placed” there, to take video from a hidden or unsuspected position. Then it can be flown back to the controlling pilot; this is a significant improvement over some early drones that were not stable enough to land and were literally flown into a net, to catch them for a “landing”.
The drone can currently fly for about eight minutes, which is impressive considering that range was only 20 seconds a short two years ago. The quick flight meets the goals set forth by the government to build a flying “hummingbird-like” aircraft. It also demonstrates the promise of fielding mini-spy planes. The Hummingbird would be a major departure from existing drones that closely resemble traditional aircraft. The next step is likely to be further refinement of the technology, officials said, before decisions are made about whether the drones would be mass-produced and deployed.