DARPA Concludes Nano Air Vehicle Program, We Wonder What’s Next

DARPA’s got itself a tiny lifelike flying spy robot, and you’ll never look at hummingbirds the same way again

2 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Nano Hummingbird
Photo: AeroVironment

photoThe original concept, on left, and the final robot, on right

We’ve written a fair number of articles starting with the phrase “DARPA wants” followed by something that’s nearly always entirely improbable and often borderline nutty. It’s rare that DARPA actually gets exactly what it wants, but with their Nano Air Vehicle program, that seems to have happened.

As the above video shows, it was definitely not an easy process to make a life sized, fully controllable surveillance robot that’s more or less indistinguishable for a hummingbird, but AeroVironment managed to pull it off. Of the technical goals and milestones that DARPA set out for the robot, it managed to meet all and exceed many:

  • Demonstrate precision hover flight within a virtual two-meter diameter sphere for one minute.

  • Demonstrate hover stability in a wind gust flight which required the aircraft to hover and tolerate a two-meter per second (five miles per hour) wind gust from the side, without drifting downwind more than one meter.

  • Demonstrate a continuous hover endurance of eight minutes with no external power source.

  • Fly and demonstrate controlled, transition flight from hover to 11 miles per hour fast forward flight and back to hover flight.

  • Demonstrate flying from outdoors to indoors, and back outdoors through a normal-size doorway.

  • Demonstrate flying indoors ‘heads-down’ where the pilot operates the aircraft only looking at the live video image stream from the aircraft, without looking at or hearing the aircraft directly.

  • Fly the aircraft in hover and fast forward flight with bird-shaped body and bird-shaped wings.

AeroVironment says that it would take a decade to make this robot ready for deployment, but DARPA doesn’t just hand out piles of cash to make cool stuff for no reason. There’s a future here, whether or not we hear about it immediately, so just make sure to give hummingbirds a second look from now on.

[ Nano Air Vehicle Program and AeroVironment ]

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