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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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
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In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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