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It's a bird! It's a spy! It's both

Backed by the Pentagon's research arm, Monrovia firm AeroVironment has developed the Nano Hummingbird, an experimental miniature drone that could one day do reconnaissance by landing on a window ledge.

February 17, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • With a wingspan of 6.5 inches, the Nano Hummingbird weighs 19 grams, or less than a AA battery. The drone's guts consist of motors, communications systems and a video camera. It is slightly larger than the average hummingbird.
With a wingspan of 6.5 inches, the Nano Hummingbird weighs 19 grams, or less… (AeroVironment )

A pocket-size drone dubbed the Nano Hummingbird for the way it flaps its tiny robotic wings has been developed for the Pentagon by a Monrovia company as a mini-spy plane capable of maneuvering on the battlefield and in urban areas.

The battery-powered drone was built by AeroVironment Inc. for the Pentagon's research arm as part of a series of experiments in nanotechnology. The little flying machine is built to look like a bird for potential use in spy missions.

The results of a five-year effort to develop the drone are being announced Thursday by the company and the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Equipped with a camera, the drone can fly at speeds of up to 11 miles per hour, AeroVironment said. It can hover and fly sideways, backward and forward, as well as go clockwise and counterclockwise, by remote control for about eight minutes.

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. Industry insiders see the technology eventually being capable of flying through open windows or sitting on power lines, capturing audio and video while enemies would be none the wiser.

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.

"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."

With a wingspan of 6.5 inches, the mini-drone weighs 19 grams, or less than a AA battery. The Hummingbird's guts are made up of motors, communications systems and a video camera. It is slightly larger than the average hummingbird.

The success of the program "paves the way for a new generation of aircraft with the agility and appearance of small birds," Todd Hylton, Hummingbird program manager for the Pentagon's research arm, said in a statement.

In all, the Pentagon has awarded about $4 million to AeroVironment since 2006 to develop the technology and the drone itself.

Matt Keennon, the company's manager on the project, 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 the current eight minutes of flight are likely to be extended as experiments continue.

"This is a new form of man-made flight," Keennon said. It is about "biomimicry," or building a machine that is inspired by nature, he said.

The Pentagon issued seven specific milestones for the Hummingbird, including the ability to hover in a 5-mph wind gust and the ability to fly from outdoors to indoors and back outdoors through a normal-size doorway.

Critics have noted that privacy issues may emerge depending on how the drones are used.

For now, the Hummingbird is just a prototype, Keennon said. But 10 years from now, he sees the technology carrying out detailed reconnaissance missions.

But it's not likely to be a "hummingbird," considering that that's a rare bird in, say, New York City.

"I'm not a bird expert, but a sparrow seems to be better," Keennon said.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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