Darpa's First Robotic Ornithopter Hovers, Flies Like a Hummingbird

The creepy, tiny wing-flapping UAV, designed for indoor flight, is modelled on hummingbirds

A few years from now, bird-watchers may be in for a double take: that flapping creature in the distance? Nope, not a bird. Mutant dragon fly? Nope--it's Darpa's latest unmanned aerial robo-sentinel, inspired by the flight mechanics of birds.

The tech company Aerovironment recently won a $2.1 million contract to further their work on the Nano Air Vehicle (NAV). One of many progressive projects from Darpa (the Pentagon's advanced-research unit), the NAV is the first-ever "controlled hovering flight of an air vehicle system with two flapping wings that carries its own energy source and uses only the flapping wings for propulsion and control," says Aerovironment.

In the future, Darpa plans to use the teeny NAV for secret indoor and outdoor government missions, like dropping off listening devices and other cargo, and transmiting sound and video to locations as far as a kilometer away.

The above tasks are, presumably, ones that any small air vehicle could take on--which raises a question: cool factor aside, how is the ornithopter better than any run-of-the-mill tiny helicopter? According to Darpa, the advantages lie in something called the Reynolds number, a measurement of airborne efficiency that is lower (and technologically better) for flying creatures (like hummingbirds) compared to regular aircraft.

Aerovironment plans to make the next batch of birds smaller (10 grams and 7.5 cm), faster (22 mph), quieter, and more wind-resistant.