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Air Force Keeps 'Micro-Aviary' Of Tiny, Bird-like 'Bots

November 3, 2011 | Hogan Keyser

November 2, 2011 via -- If Air Force researchers have their way, the military's next flying robots of doom will be tiny, and indistinguishable from the naked eye from small birds, bats or even insects. And they'll take their first flight in a freaky "Micro-Aviary" in Ohio, where engineers make mini-machines modeled on those creatures of the sky.

Miniaturization is a major trend in drone tech. The Army's new Switchblade drone is a semi-autonomous missile shot out of a mortar tube for kamikaze missions. Some robotic aircraft manufacturers, like the micro-machinists at AeroVironment, have even started experimenting with super-small drones that look like hummingbirds -- and even dragonflies.

The Navy took the next step. Rather than merely modeling a drone chassis on a bird or insect, the Navy started studying the behavioral and migratory patterns of birds, fish and bats to develop a more realistic robot facsimile. The Air Force, however, is taking the step beyond that.

At the Micro-Aviary at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, researchers rig the walls with super-sensitive motion capture sensors that track a tiny plane or helicopter's position "within about a tenth of an inch," according to researcher Greg Parker. Information from those sensors helps engineers develop "flapping-wing flight" drones -- "very, very small flapping-wing vehicles," in Parker's phrase.

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