Magazine article Insight on the News

Robot 'Insects' Create a Buzz

Magazine article Insight on the News

Robot 'Insects' Create a Buzz

Article excerpt

In the next century, tiny robot aircraft will monitor war zones, disaster areas, other hot spots.

Imagine this: A large office building has collapsed, the result of an earthquake. Finding survivors would imperil the lives of rescue workers. What to do?

In the coming years, response teams to such disasters might turn to micro-air vehicles," or micro-AVs. Tiny robot aircraft the size of birds or even bees have become a hot topic for researchers developing new methods of surveillance, detecting hazardous chemicals and maintaining communications under difficult conditions.

At present, such devices exist only on drawing boards or as rudimentary prototypes. But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency a high-tech arm of the Pentagon, hopes to perform field tests of several versions of the aircraft within three years.

Engineers are studying a variety of design possibilities for micro-Ads, including fixed-wing rotary-blade crafts. Some contemplate flapping-wing vehicles that would emulate birds and insects. In any case, the aerodynamic principles of tiny aircraft are different from those employed by their larger counterparts. "At some point, the physics will definitely change, but we're not sure where," says Georgia Tech research scientist Sam Blankenship.

Researchers are trying to avoid the dangers posed by propellers or other sharp objects to passersby. And since many missions would require multiple micro-Ads operating in tandem, they will have to communicate with one another. Other engineers have begun to work on devices able to carry small payloads-soil samples from contaminated areas, for instance.

Researchers envision a variety of uses for micro aircraft:

* Combat support. Ground soldiers could launch airborne drones at critical moments to identify enemy troops or targets. …

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