Beware, urbanites: In the future, that innocent-looking bird in the sky may actually be a surveillance camera.
Participating on a panel at the recent Autotestcon 2012 show in Anaheim, Calif., Kelly Hayhurst of NASA noted that, by 2019, there will be 20,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) produced in the United States. One of these is the Nano Hummingbird (named one of the best inventions of 2011 by Time magazine), a half-ounce UAV with a video camera that can be used for security applications.
Source: AeroVironment Inc.
Developed by Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment Inc., the Nano Hummingbird is positioned by the manufacturer to "provide new reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities in urban environments." The device is not yet in production, but the prototype shown in the figures and video was developed as part of a DARPA-funded program to demonstrate the technology. Since it was developed with DARPA interest, we can surmise that technology like that used in the Nano Hummingbird will find applications in urban warfare environments, such as seeking out individuals inside of buildings. The US military has reportedly already used UAVs extensively in urban and other warfare theaters.
I spoke to Steve Gitlin, AeroVironment’s VP of marketing strategy and communications, about the technologies required to design the Nano Hummingbird, and what kinds of commercial applications await it in the world’s urban areas. He noted that small-scale mechanical engineering skills were critical, claiming, “Actually, it was more like making a watch than an airplane.” In addition, the designers of the little bird needed to deploy highly efficient energy storage and consumption techniques, automated stabilization and control, and lightweight, flexible materials. The company filed a US Patent application in December 2010 for the flight mechanism and control method used on the Nano Hummingbird, and has since received two US patents (#8,205,823 and #8,210,471).
Even though this little guy is only in prototype stage, it could ultimately be used in urban environments. Gitlin alluded to applications that require operations in "confined spaces, such as collapsed buildings or in dangerous enclosed spaces that require precision operation."
One challenge of using UAVs in urban environments is that, from the air, it is difficult to see because of the density of buildings and structures on the ground. This can be addressed with algorithms and models that take the complex urban terrain into consideration. However, a tiny UAV that could fly between the buildings and structures opens up an entire new realm of possible data collection. For example, potential security applications might include facial recognition applications, search and rescue, as well as surveying underground areas like cable chases and subway tunnels. Gitlin believes the technologies used to develop the Nano Hummingbird will lead to a new category of small, unmanned aircraft systems.
He was unable to give an estimate as to when the product could be deployed in urban environments. But I, for one, am going to be looking a little more closely when I see a hummingbird nearby...
— Janine Sullivan Love, Senior Editor, Test & Measurement World, Contributing Editor, EDN