Following on from last week's article on potentially murderous robots, we spoke to the creators of the Nano Hummingbird - the US military's latest drone prototype. We chat with Steven Gitlin of California-based AeroVironment, who are the proud parents of the electronic creature.
So how did the Nano Hummingbird come to existence?
In 2006 DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) came up with this concept. They seem to be focused on pushing technology forward to the boundaries. They had a micro air vehicle program as far back into 1996 that we were involved with.
In the course of technology development we came up with the Black Widow. It had a video camera that could transmit back to a receiver. That seemed to be useful in DARPA’s thinking in where they wanted to go in terms of very small unmanned aircraft tech.
In 2006 DARPA had a Phase One program to encourage advancement of such technology. One of them was based on a maple seed, one was based on a locust, one was based on a mini helicopter, and one was based on biological mimicry of a hummingbird. All of the companies got funding in Phase One.
In the course of Phase One we made some pretty good progress, warranting a Phase Two contract. We were the only company to get a Phase Two award. Out team kept plugging away… they ended up going through something like 300 different wing pair designs.
Late last year we demonstrated a Nano Hummingbird that you could control, put in a precise hover, left, right forward and backward. That kind of precision flight had never been achieved as far as we are aware. It really was the creativity and persistence of the team focused on that that allowed for us to get there.
How many people were involved in total on the project?
The team ranged in size from three to six depending on full time people and interns. We’ve got pretty sizable team focused on unmanned technology so as the nano team needed other skill sets, they were able to draw from out team, and they were able to draw from a couple universities as well to get where they needed to go.
In development was there a specific purpose in mind? Why was a hummingbird chosen?
At the beginning of the program in 2006, DARPA compiled a video showing a hummingbird flying, and he had a ground station. He flies into a window of an enemy’s building and drops a payload. Presumably there are other concepts of operation that are being considered, but we’ve accomplished what our customer has asked us to do.
What else is planned for the project? Is there a ‘Phase Three’?
We certainly have a number of ideas where we can take it, guidance capabilities, etc. The way we work as a company, we’re not developing things just to develop them. If DARPA were to ask us to continue to develop upon them, we’d be interested.
As of now we don’t know. There are a lot of opportunities for the private sector. It’s equipped with a color video camera and an infrared camera. It’s well suited for first response. Something like the Nano Hummingbird would be best on a much more localised mission, around or in buildings looking for people or looking for information.
The public seems pretty enamoured with the product. Does this happen with a lot of technologies you release?
It has been incredible. I’ve been with the company for eight and a half years and I’ve never seen anything generate this much interest.
In the role I am now, I can’t think of anything that has garnered more attention form the media and regular people. It’s really been an amazing response to what we’ve done.
Part of it when you actually see this aircraft operation it’s truly a sense of wonder at the realization that something like this can be done.
We had a press briefing here on Friday, and the operator did this fly-by at about camera level and I was just watching the faces on the grizzled cameramen. Without exception all of them grinned. There’s something about it that just captures people’s imagination.
It really is the result of the kind of creativity and hard work that we do as a company. We’re the same company that has produced high-altitude solar-powered man less technology. Our founder created the first human-powered airplane In the 70s.
Find out more about the Hummingbird and it's creators at www.avinc.com/nano