The Military Wants Smarter Insect Spy Drones

The Military Wants Smarter Insect Spy Drones

Patrick Tucker, writing in the December 23, 2014 website,, notes that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) “put out a broad agency announcement this week, seeing software solutions to help drones fly better — in tight, enclosed environments. The Fast, Lightweight Autonomy Program (FLA) , the agency said, “focuses on creating a new class of algorithms to enable small, unmanned aerial vehicles to quickly navigate a labyrinth of rooms, stairways, and corridors, or other, obstacle-filled environments — without a remote pilot.”

“The solicitation doesn’t focus on new drone designs, so much as helping very small drones — able to fit through an open window, and fly at 45MPH — navigate tight and chaotic, indoor spaces, without having to communicate with operators, get GPS directions, or receive data from external sensors. All the thinking and steering and landing would be [conducted autonomously by] in the drone.”

“Goshawks, for example,” Mr. Tucker writes, “can fly very fast, through a dense forest, without smacking into a tree.” Sort of reminds me of one of the scenes in a Star Wars movie where Luke Skywalker and others are flying through the woods on what looks like a motorcycle UAV.

“The goal of the FLA Program,” Mr. Tucker says, “is to explore non-traditional perception and autonomy methods that would give small UAVs the capacity to perform in similar way — including the ability to easily navigate tight spaces at high speed; and, quickly recognize if it had already been in a room before,” said Mark Micire, DARPA Program Manager, said in a press release.

“Urban disaster relief is an “obvious’ application for tiny, self-guided insect robots,” according to DARPA; but, “an equally, obvious application — left out of the announcement — is spy drones that can fly independently into rooms, find a perch, and serve as a fly on the wall, in a very real (but robotic sense) of the world,” Mr. Tucker wrote. “As new materials come online, researchers are quickly getting better at miniaturizing flying machines. Supposedly, the world’s smallest drone is the robofly, from Harvard (DARPA funded) at 60 milligrams, and 3 centimeters. DoD is currently working on a version that is three times smaller. On December 16, the Army Research Laboratory announced that it had created a tiny fly drone of comparable size to the robofly wings made of lead zirconium titanate.”

“But, creating a miniature flying machine isn’t as simple as creating something that can take off and land while attached to a wire,” Mr. Tucker argues. “There’s more that goes into the flight than pure mechanics. It takes brains,” says Ron Polcawich, head of the Army Research Lab’s piezoelectric microelectromechanical systems, or PiezoMEMS team, says it may take another 15 years of research before drones can move through the air, land, and behave like bugs.”

“A major algorithmic challenge,” according to the Autonomous Navigation of Miniature UAV, a group of researchers from NASA IEEE, and other outfits, describe the difficulty in getting the machine that’s the size of an insect to actually think like one, much less think like a bird. A major algorithmic challenge is to process sensor information at a high rate to provide vehicle control and higher level tasks, with real-time position information and vehicle states.”

Smaller, Faster, Lethal, Quick, In And Out

This is clearly the future. Smaller, faster, lethal, clandestine, covert, swarms, drones interacting with each other without human intervention – it is, whether we like it or not — coming. Swarms of armed UAVs — in the air, or under the water could temporarily cause so much havoc that freedom of airspace or underwater maneuverability is denied, in future scenarios. A miniature UAV with a DNA-signature enabled warhead may be able to make a “personal” delivery — almost eliminating collateral damage when a terrorist like Osama bin Laden is targeted in the future. And with biometrics and identity management becoming such a huge challenge in keeping someone undercover, miniature and micro UAVs may be one of the few ways of collecting critical intelligence — without being discovered. Still, we are a ways away of scenarios like this; but, it is clear with all the issues of identity management as well as the difficulty of staying hidden — even on networks [digital exhaust, digital fingerprints, etc], other means and methods of collecting intelligence are needed. Figuring out how to do this, clandestinely or covertly, in a stealth mode. as well as disseminating the data — encrypted without the adversary knowing that data is being, or has been extracted — in real-time — are all ‘long poles in the tent,’ as we used to say. But, it is indeed going to be a brave new world, as Aldous Huxley might say. V/R, RCP

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