Bug off: US military planning winged, insect-like microdrone

The US military has ordered the development of tiny microdrones, whose shape and flapping wing movements will replicate insect flight. The super-small craft will provide incredible stealth in information gathering, and surveillance missions intended to really bug enemies.

“I’m no drone – just a snooping bug”

The elite Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has partnered with innovative prototype specialist Arion Health LLC to create a model for insect-sized microdrones. Working from a 2014 patent, the effort seeks to produce tiny craft capable of changing wingbeats to maintain or modify velocity as bugs and birds do. Initial designs involve a remote-controlled operational system, interacting with a variety of speed and condition profiles moderating wing movement stored on the drone. 

According to a press statement announcing the partnership, the project will create:

(A) biomimetic micro-robotic aircraft to perform insect-like maneuvers with two physical actuators, while utilizing minimal computer processing power. Controllable forces would be generated by the wings based on position and velocity profiles, resulting in time-varying wing upstrokes and downstrokes, which, at times, may be asymmetrical.

Known as micro air vehicles (MAV), the bug-drone will be used for, among other things, “in-the-open surveillance, aerial swarm operations, and battlefield situational awareness.” One critical application will be to approach and spy on enemy forces or craft before those can reach battlefield conflicts. 

Microdrones mastering six degrees of flight

In doing that work, MAV will be capable of six degrees of flight – up, down, forward and back, left or right – which may be determined by the remote pilots based on mission plans or challenges those encounter. 

The agreement between the AFRL and Arion calls for the latter to deliver a functional prototype sometime in 2022. (An actual, operational drone will have to be developed and perfected from there.) It also grants AFRL licensing rights to Arion, which will oversee eventual marketing and revenue management of final craft.

“We were excited to license our technology to a small business that was building strategic relationships in the drone industry,” says Joshua Laravie, technology transfer specialist and domestic alliance program manager for AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate. “[We] are looking forward to supporting their efforts to commercialize an AF technology.”

Those future MAV are being described as designed for flight by both military and enterprise users. Missions by businesses could include accessing and inspecting tight or confined spaces like tubes or pipes, or even the innards of large machines and intricate infrastructure.

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