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  • It's a Bird! It's a Tree Seed! It's a UAV!
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 6:05 PM on Aug 16, 2011

    I have been to more press conferences about aircraft than I like to think about, but today was the first time I saw anyone fly an aircraft in the press conference room.

    It's around 15 years since the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched its Nano Air Vehicle program, with the objective of building a tiny indoor-outdoor flyer - something that could fly through the window and deposit a payload weighing about as much as a penny. (An acoustic bug most likely, although participants were not told what it was or who wanted it put where.)

    The technology at the time was not mature. Indeed, Matt Keennon of AeroVironment, who was the company's project manager at the time, was not that enthused by Darpa's preference for biomimetic approaches such as flapping wings. At AeroVironment, the NAV effort eventually begat Black Widow, the ancestor of today's operational Wasp.

    Since then, Keennon has become the inventor of AV's Hummingbird, a six-inch-span ornithopter that is now looking for an operational user to provide the next level of funding, and demonstrated it at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference today in Washington.

    The Hummingbird has demonstrated an eleven-minute endurance (a nectar-fueled variant is not on the cards) and could be scaled up for more capability, or scaled down for covertness and made quieter. Today's prototype is certainly noisier than its biological model, but Keennon says that the engineers have made great strides. "The first version sounded like an Uzi. You needed hearing protection."

    Making its first public flights in AUVSI's flight demonstration area is another offshoot of NAV, Lockheed Martin's Samarai. Developed by the company's Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Cherry Hill, New Jersey (a legacy RCA/GE group), Samarai is essentially a powered and controlled maple seed.

    Remarkable features include processing that provides a stable video image from a camera that is fixed to the spinning airframe, and control technology that allows the camera to be pointed at a target.

    Laboratory director Bill Borgia explains, though, that there is more to Samarai than the UAV. What the team is trying to do, he says, "is to learn to control mechanically simple devices." Samarai, for example, achieves powered and controlled flight with two effectors:  variable propeller power and a single flap. It also provides 360-degree sensing without a gimbal. Mechanical simplicity, Borgia says, is the key to making unmanned systems smaller and cheaper.

    At the same time, Samarai is a test platform for autonomous technologies such as obstacle avoidance. The lab wants to use the same kind of approach to design devices like a mechanically simple, biologically inspired manipulator to disable improvised explosive devices.

    Tags: ar99, uavs, auvsi, unmanned

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