Magazine article National Defense

Look, It's a Bird! It's a Plane! No, It's an Avian Robot

Magazine article National Defense

Look, It's a Bird! It's a Plane! No, It's an Avian Robot

Article excerpt

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio--To conduct surveillance missions while on patrol in Afghanistan, soldiers and marines hand-launch toy model-sized airplanes called the Raven.

If Air Force Research Laboratory scientists are successful in the coming five years, troops one day may send up robots that actually look and fly like real birds.

In a new $1.5 million micro air vehicle indoor flight test facility, researchers are developing a small avian robot capable of operating semi-autonomously for a week with onboard sensors to detect weapons of mass destruction.

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"What we're doing here in the lab is we're exploring the science and engineering and the design challenges to make this a reality," said Leslie Perkins, who leads the lab's micro air vehicles activity.

Humans have explored flight for more than 100 years and have become successful with aviation technologies on a macro level. But the translation of that knowledge to small-scale systems--especially aircraft that will fly using flapping wings--is still in its infancy.

"We're really in the early 1900s with these micro-vehicles," Perkins said. "We know a lot, but we don't know how all of the areas will work, and how all the areas will work together."

To begin understanding the challenges of designing and ultimately operating bird-sized or insect-sized technologies, researchers are studying how remote-controlled toy aircraft fly in different environments. They are placing prototype sensors, processors and materials onto RC toy helicopters and flying them autonomously around the indoor test range. The facility is one of the largest in the country and so far the only place where scientists can flight test such vehicles in simulated terrain.

During a recent demonstration, researchers attached white round tracking sensors onto an RC helicopter and truck. "We put these markers on vehicles to track the orientation and position of the vehicle with 1 mm accuracy," said Gregory Parker, the team lead for the micro air vehicles lab.

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The instrumentation is the same as the VICON motion capture system widely used in the entertainment industry. When attached to special suits worn by actors or athletes, the sensors translate movements into electronic signals that are captured by computers for animation. …

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