…Or maybe that high-agility flying robot was a tasty snack for an artificial toad. In a real-life nod to the classic science fiction novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University is helping to develop a micro aerial vehicle (MAV for short) that will be no bigger than a bug.
So, What Good is a Micro Aerial Vehicle?
An MAV would be used for military reconnaissance operations in urban areas, where densely packed buildings and unpredictable winds create unique challenges for a small flying device – no surprise here, since the Hopkins research is partly funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
And then there’s the Internet
On the other hand, the Internet started as a defense-funded project and look where we are now. As highly fuel efficient micro machines, MAV’s could become an essential part of the sustainable tech landscape, for example in wind turbine maintenance and other clean energy tasks, data collection, and environmental monitoring. They could also be useful in emergency response, especially as the “search” part of a search and rescue operation
Secret of the Hopkins MAV
Student researchers Tras Lin and Lingxiao Zheng are spearheading the Johns Hopkins contribution to MAV research, using high-speed video cameras to analyze the way a butterfly’s body moves in flight. The advanced cameras enabled the researchers to separate one-fifth of a second of movement into 600 frames. According to Lin, the breakdown shows that the insect’s body in flight shares some characteristics with the body movements of figure skaters, who use their arm position to modify their speed while spinning.
According to Phil Sneiderman of Johns Hopkins, the key discovery so far has been to recognize that changes in the distribution of the insect’s body mass play an important role in its ability to perform intricate maneuvers while flapping its wings. Previous research into flight dynamics had overlooked this area of study and focused primarily on wing movements.
Look Out! More MAV’s on the Way
If something rings a bell about this project, you may recall that last year DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, released photos of the Hummingbird, a tiny, ultra lightweight remote-controlled flying vehicle designed to resemble an actual hummingbird. The Hummingbird was designed specifically to let troops in urban combat to get a look around corners and inside buildings.
The military’s interest in cutting edge urban combat technologies is not a new development. In an eerily prescient 1999 report prepared by the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, researchers noted that the frequency and scale of urban combat is “likely to increase,” further noting that:
“From early history on, urban combat has required masses of dismounted infantrymen, a significant amount of time, combined arms and astonishing quantities of ammunition. The assaulting force runs the risk of its own attrition by combat, insufficient supplies and epidemic diseases. Assaults on cities have resulted in heavy military and civilian casualties and shattered cities. Modern urban combat has often destroyed operations tempo, drained logistics stockpiles and ruined the reputations of promising commanders.”
That report must have been overlooked when the previous Administration planned its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The current Administration seems to have absorbed the lessons with a focus on long-distance air and sea power, which by nature involves a renewed effort on cutting edge technology, so look for lots more than flying bug-type gadgets in the future.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.