With all the negative news flying around these days concerning drones – and the potential negative constitutional impact they will ultimately have on American society – now comes news that researchers are taking the surveillance society up a notch by shrinking the observation platform.
It may sound like something out of the science-fiction hopper at your local DVD rental machine, but scientists are trying to engineer a drone that is no bigger than a bug. A team of researchers at the vaunted Johns Hopkins University – in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Arlington, Va. – is helping develop what they are calling an MAV (micro aerial vehicle) that will no doubt have loads of uses, up to and including the usurpation of privacy rights by the Leviathan State.
Initially though, it’s thought that MAVs will be incorporated for use by the military, for situations when stealth is of the utmost importance. The tiny drones could effortlessly infiltrate urban areas, where dense concentrations of buildings and people, along with unpredictable winds and other obstacles make it impractical, if not impossible, to use a standard-sized drone. Domestic uses include search-and-rescue operations and, of course, observation.
How small, exactly? Well, a graphic on the site of the Air Force research agency features what looks to be an electronic mosquito. That’s pretty small – though officially, the agency says such micro vehicles could be larger.
They’re not bug-sized yet, but they’re out there
“A MAV is a flight vehicle about two feet in length or smaller, 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 Air Force says. “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.”
How possible is it to build such machines? Very possible. In fact, according a 2009 Air Force press release, a French researcher funded by the European Office of Aerospace Research and Development, in London, and the French ministry of defense “has designed a rugged micro air vehicle (MAV) that is attractive to the U.S. Air Force because of its high aerodynamic efficiency, even in adverse conditions.”
Dr. Jean-Marc Moschetta, professor of aerodynamics at the Institut Superieur de l’Aeronautique et de l’espace in Toulouse, France created what he calls the MAVion – a 30-centimeter fixed wing MAV that can make a rapid transition between flight and hover, both features which are attractive for military and commercial use.
“The ultimate goal of the MAVion concept is to demonstrate a two-fold capability using the same vehicle: fast forward flight and hover flight,” Moschetta said.
Since then, the focus on MAVs has evolved. Student researchers Tras Lin and Lingxiao Zheng, who are leading the Johns Hopkins contribution to MAV research, are using high-speed video cameras to examine how a butterfly moves in flight. The cameras give the team the ability to separate one-fifth of a second movement into about 600 frames, showing them how the insect maneuvers and moves its body to make the kinds of sudden moves it can make.
Concept has long been studied
Other defense agencies are working on similar technology.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency just last year released photos of a small, mega-lightweight, remote-controlled flying vehicle called a Hummingbird that was designed to mimic the bird in flight. Specifically, the vehicle was designed to give American troops the capability to see around corners and look inside buildings to spot enemy forces.
That project likely stemmed from a 1999 report by the Foreign Military Studies Office at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., detailing the military’s interest in improving combat conditions for U.S. forces in urban environments.
“From early history on, urban combat has required masses of dismounted infantrymen, a significant amount of time, combined arms and astonishing quantities of ammunition,” the report summarized. “The assaulting force runs the risk of its own attrition by combat, insufficient supplies and epidemic diseases. Assaults on cities have resulted in heavy military and civilian casualties and shattered cities. Modern, urban combat has often destroyed operations’ tempo, drained logistics stockpiles and ruined the reputations of promising commanders.”
MAVs may be under development for all the right reasons, but they sure carry with them the possibility they may be used for all the wrong reasons.