Insect Drones Take Flight: Can Watch, Film And Kill Targets Unnoticed

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Air Vehicles Directorate Micro Air Vehicle Integration & Application Research Institute (µAVIARI) is dedicated to the development and testing of Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) technology. A MAV is a flight vehicle about two feet in length or less, capable of operating below rooftop level in an urban environment. It may have a fixed wing, rotary wing (helicopter), flapping wing, or possibly no wings.

The new micro drones could be said to float like a butterfly, sting like a lethal bee.
Air Force Research Laboratory
Credit:  AFRL

One of the primary missions driving MAV development is the need to fill the covert close-in sensing requirement. This requirement demands that MAVs be able to covertly find, track, and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments. The µAVIARI brings together scientists and engineers, along with world-class experimental facilities, for the research, design, fabrication, and testing of MAVs. The lab’s Indoor Flight Test Laboratory, the showcase of the µAVIARI, allows researchers to simulate an urban environment by removing or controlling environmental effects such as temperature and wind. It also provides a contained test volume that can be highly instrumented, while minimizing interference and risk to people and property.


The US Air Force is developing bug-sized drones that will be able to fly, crawl, perch and hover while performing unprecedented surveillance tasks and carrying out deadly targeted missions.

Credit:  AFRL
The new project has been shown in a promotional video released by the US Air Force Research Laboratory. Its Air Vehicles Directorate is developing the Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) that it claims “will become a vital element in the ever-changing war-fighting environment and will help ensure success on the battlefield of the future.”

“Unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal – Micro Air Vehicles, enhancing the capabilities of the future war fighter,”

Credit:  AFRL

The tiny drones will be able to enter inaccessible locations using new forms of navigation such as a vision-based technique called “optic flow,” which can be used when traditional methods like GPS are unavailable.

Credit:  AFRL
Most importantly some MAVs may perform direct attack missions, becoming a lethal surprise for unsuspecting targets.
Credit:  AFRL

The science writer, John Horgan, described what information he was able to access from the government: The Air Force has nonetheless already constructed a “micro-aviary” at Wright-Patterson for flight-testing small drones. It’s a cavernous chamber—35 feet high and covering almost 4,000 square feet—with padded walls. Micro-aviary researchers, much of whose work is classified, decline to let me witness a flight test. But they do show me an animated video starring micro-UAVs that resemble winged, multi-legged bugs. The drones swarm through alleys, crawl across windowsills, and perch on power lines. One of them sneaks up on a scowling man holding a gun and shoots him in the head.

“It could be equipped with incapacitating chemicals, combustible payloads, or even explosives or precision-targeting capability, ” according to the video.

Credit:  AFRL

According to Horgan, however, the U.S. government “takes seriously” the potential for widespread proliferation of “micro-drone” technology among terrorists and governments: What, one might ask, will prevent terrorists and criminals from getting their hands on some kind of lethal drone? Although American officials rarely discuss the threat in public, they take it seriously.”

According to YouTube user politicoSUPE, “in a world with micro-drones, casualties of American drone strikes will likely decrease, given that we’d be directly killing targets rather than obliterating them and everything around them with a missile from the sky. But the possibility for such precisely targeted surveillance and assassination, at the hands of a virtually-untraceable little “bug,” gives our government one more tool to easily evade supervision and accountability.”

The µAVIARI is composed of four separate MAV experimental laboratories that provide a collaborative work environment for partners throughout AFRL as well as across industry and academia. The µAVIARI firmly establishes AFRL’s vision as the premier organization for leading the development of MAV technology.

Unsteady Aerodynamics Laboratory. This facility consists of a large water tank with an impeller that guides water over and around a submerged test article at various rates of flow. The water tunnel allows scientists to use methods such as flow visualization and particle image velocimetry to study the aerodynamic flow around a MAV.

MAV Fabrication Laboratory. This lab houses a wide range of tools and equipment that allow researchers to quickly build and modify MAVs. The lab includes such tools as a laser engraver that provides the ability to cut and etch materials, and a 3-D printer that allows researchers to fabricate models quickly, easily, and inexpensively.

Flapping Wing Bench Test Laboratory. This laboratory allows scientists to record MAVs in motion, using high-speed cameras and other instrumentation to capture their smallest movements. By intricately studying the motion of MAVs, the forces produced, and the structural deformations measured, researchers can obtain insights into the physics behind flapping wing flight to help them better understand the overall nature of MAV flight.

MAV Indoor Flight Test Laboratory. This lab is the cornerstone of the µAVIARI. The Indoor Flight Lab allows for the separation of airframe development from sensor, communication, and payload development, meaning these technologies can be developed independently and simultaneously. The lab is composed of a test chamber and a control room. The test chamber is a large, instrumented room where MAVs can be flown. Instrumentation consists of a VICON motion capture system with 60 motion capture cameras.

 By adding small retro-reflective markers to a vehicle, the VICON system can track position and orientation of the vehicle with an accuracy of ~1.0 mm. The test chamber can simulate an urban environment, complete with winds, to test MAVs in a controlled, operationally realistic environment where test conditions can be easily repeated. The control room is used to simultaneously command multiple test vehicles as well as to process and record test data such as: vehicle position/orientation, velocity, acceleration, commands, sensor telemetry, and video-stream and audio data.
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