February 22, 2011 — It may look like a hummingbird. But it is much more.
Earlier this month, AeroVironment, Inc. announced it has accomplished a technical milestone — controlled precision hovering and fast-forward flight of a two-wing, flapping wing aircraft that carries its own energy source, and uses only the flapping wings for propulsion and control.
The milestone was part of the Phase II contract awarded to AV by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design and build a flying prototype "hummingbird-like" aircraft for the Nano Air Vehicle program.
The final concept demonstrator is called the 'Nano Hummingbird' and is capable of climbing and descending vertically, flying sideways left and right, flying forward and backward, as well as rotating clockwise and counter-clockwise, under remote control and carrying a video camera payload. It can fly at speeds up to 11 mph.
The hand-made prototype aircraft has a wingspan of 6.5 inches tip-to-tip and weighs two-thirds of an ounce - less than a common AA battery. This includes all the systems required for flight: batteries, motors, communications systems and video camera. The aircraft is larger and heavier than an average hummingbird, but is smaller and lighter than the largest hummingbird currently found in nature.
The Hummingbird would be a major departure from existing drones that closely resemble traditional aircraft, the Los Angeles Times reported. 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.
"The miniaturization of drones is where it really gets interesting," said defense expert Peter W. Singer, author of "Wired for War," a book about robotic warfare. "You can use these things anywhere, put them anyplace, and the target will never even know they're being watched," the Los Angeles Times reported.
Matt Keennon, the company's project manager, said it was a technical challenge to create the mini-machine from scratch because it pushes the limitations of aerodynamics. Less than two years ago, an earlier version of the drone could fly for 20 seconds. Keennon said that’s now up to eight minutes of flight time - likely to be extended as experiments continue.
The Pentagon has awarded about $4 million to AeroVironment since 2006 to develop the technology and the drone itself.
AeroVironment, Inc. is developing the Nano Hummingbird under a DARPA-sponsored research contract to develop a new class of air vehicle systems capable of indoor and outdoor operation. This unconventional aircraft could someday provide new reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities in urban environments. Photo credit: AeroVironment, Inc.
AeroVironment demonstrates the maneuverability of its prototype Nano Hummingbird. Photo credit: AeroVironment