Published on November 9th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Biomimicry Run Amok: New Micro Air Vehicles Can Swarm Like Bees

November 9th, 2014 by  

We’ve been hearing a lot about robot swarms, biomimicry, and drones the size of insects, so it was only a matter of time before swarms of tiny flying robot drones hit the skies. Called micro air vehicles or micro aerial vehicles (MAVs), the latest development is an upcoming test of bee-inspired mechanical critters by the US Army at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The Army’s interest in high tech apiculture is coming from a need to increase a Soldier’s situational awareness of building interiors during urban operations, so don’t look for these biomimicry MAVs to sport tiny little bee stingers — yet. In any case, we’re more interested in the potential for clean tech applications.

micro aerial vehicles (MAVs) Army biomimicry

The Army will test these bee-inspired micro air vehicles (image cropped, courtesy of US Army).

Biomimicry And Bee-Like Micro Air Vehicles

The last time we checked into the MAV scene, biomimicry was a hot topic. One example would be the “hummingbird” MAV developed by the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA, the same folks who invented the Internet), which is designed to look like an actual bird.

Another kind of approach is the butterfly inspired super-small MAV under development at Johns Hopkins University, Brown University’s fruit bat study, and the “dragonfly” MAV from the German company Festo. All three are engineered to mimic the flight characteristics of their respective namesakes, but they don’t come anywhere near resembling butterflies or dragonflies, or, for that matter, fruit bats.

The Army’s new biomimicry MAV falls into the latter category, but with a twist. The developers aren’t so much interested in the particular mechanics of their MAV’s flight. The real area of biomimicry focus is in the way these MAVs see.

Specifically, Army researchers were attracted by the wide field and high update rate that characterizes insect vision. The goal is to develop a small device that can fly into a building, map the interior in 3D, and provide feedback on movements within the building.


Also distinguishing this project from others is the autonomy of the MAV. The developers, which include Carnegie-Mellon University as well as the US Army Research Laboratory, are aiming for self-guided devices that can act autonomously as team members, rather than requiring hands-on direction.

Aside from the challenges of navigating stairways, doorways, and other structural complications, these MAV’s are going to have to function efficiently in other challenging environments such as caves and tunnels. Additional challenges include little or no light, no GPS assistance or other input, no advance scouting, and of course, being attacked.

Speaking Of Biomimicry…

The partnership with Carnegie-Mellon comes under the Army Research Lab’s Micro-Autonomous Systems Technology Collaborative Technology Alliance (MAST). If you check out MAST’s mission statement, you can see how the concept of robot-Soldier teaming fits into biomimicry on a macro scale, the end goal being mechanical combat multipliers that are able to act as a team with human beings and follow their commander’s intent.

Aside from the military application, we’re particularly interested in this new MAV for its potential use in farming and forestry, as a means of monitoring conditions and reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides.

If you’ve been reading about the ferocious feral hogs that have been bedeviling farmers in 39 states and counting, you can see how swarms of autonomous, highly maneuverable surveillance robots could also come in handy for crop protection.

We’re also expecting that low cost MAV’s and other autonomous robots will become useful in monitoring and inspecting remote or hard-to-access wind farms, solar installations, and other renewable energy infrastructure.

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Wayne Williamson

    cool…reminds me a little of the book Prey by Michael Crichton…

  • jburt56

    Swarm intelligence. Developed at least 20 years ago at places like the Sante Fe Institute.

  • Offgridman

    These are an interesting development, but you definitely caught my attention when you brought up the subject of the feral hogs. They have become such a problem here in Tennessee that the state has declared open season on them this year. So getting a couple for the freezer while they are still fat from the summer eating to keep the grocery bills down and help prevent damage to the National forest and local farms provides multiple benefits.
    Finding the herds or individuals when they wander out of the National Parks to avoid the cost of the permit for hunting on federal lands (and are only given out in limited numbers) would be very helpful.
    Even if these aren’t released for individual use, having notifications available from the Rangers will help a lot for the control of these wild populations.
    Hopefully these will be made available to the forestry service as well as the military. As finding signs of wild hogs is quite easy around here, but timing when they will return as they travel around their big ranges is what is slowing down the thinning of the populations.

    • TinaCasey

      Tx for sharing those additional details. From a clean energy perspective the feral hog problem also has an impact on biofuel crop productivity so there’s that.

      • Offgridman

        “feral hog problem also has an impact on biofuel crop productivity”
        And commercial farms, family farms, personal food production, and our national forests.
        If it wasn’t such a tragedy it would be humorous that an animal brought here 400+ years ago for its ability to forage for itself is now causing so many problems in so many environments.
        It is totally due to our current society though. We are a people that think that the consumption of animal protein should be a part of our daily diet, yet are unwilling to do anything towards the acquiring or processing of that meat and expect it all to come from the grocery store in neat little plastic wrapped packages.
        What is even more ridiculous is the number of people that think that they are going to be able to get organically raised, grass fed, or free range animals in large enough quantities to take care of this daily requirement without the factory farms.
        But the number of people unable to acquire food for themselves has become so great that as I said there is a year round open season on hogs, and last year’s hunting license let me get twelve deer for myself, in an attempt to reduce the population by the state.
        There is such a disconnection between the people of America and the source and/or production of their food. Yes in part due to corporate influence, but then too because of the people’s disinterest so long as there is sufficient supply. That I wonder when they will wake up to what they are eating.

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