This is a robotic dragonfly. If I told you that some company had just invented it and it was flying around today, you’d probably be impressed. Instead, I’m going to tell you that it was developed by the CIA and was flying in the 1970s. And not just flying like proof-of-concept-it-gets-off-the-ground flying, but reportedly, the flight tests were "impressive," whatever that means. It was powered by an ultraminiaturized gasoline engine (!) that would vent its exhaust backwards to increase the bot’s thrust, and the only reason they seemed to have scrapped it was that its performance in a crosswind wasn’t that good:
In the 1970s the CIA had developed a miniature listening device that needed a delivery system, so the agency’s scientists looked at building a bumblebee to carry it. They found, however, that the bumblebee was erratic in flight, so the idea was scrapped. An amateur entymologist on the project then suggested a dragonfly and a prototype was built that became the first flight of an insect-sized machine.
A laser beam steered the dragonfly and a watchmaker on the project crafted a miniature oscillating engine so the wings beat, and the fuel bladder carried liquid propellant.
Despite such ingenuity, the project team lost control over the dragonfly in even a gentle wind. “You watch them in nature, they’ll catch a breeze and ride with it. We, of course, needed it to fly to a target. So they were never deployed operationally, but this is a one-of-a-kind piece.”
In of itself, this dragonfly is not particularly crazy. It’s also not particularly crazy that it was done 30 or 40 years ago, I guess. What IS crazy is when you start thinking about the state of technology 40 years ago versus the state of technology today, and what might be possible now (but currently top secret) if they had an operational insect robot way back then. It blows my mind.
The CIA also came up with a robot squid (its mission is STILL classified) and a robot research fish named Charlie. Pics and video of that, after the jump.
CIA’s Office of Advanced Technologies and Programs developed the Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) fish to study aquatic robot technology. Some of the specifications used to develop “Charlie” were: speed, endurance, maneuverability, depth control, navigational accuracy, autonomy, and communications status.
The UUV fish contains a pressure hull, ballast system, and communications system in the body and a propulsion system in the tail. It is controlled by a wireless line-of-sight radio handset.
Cute! And once again, seriously not bad for such a long time ago.
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Antarctica (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan's work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR's Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.