Quick Study

By Brian Robinson

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Beware of that bug: It could be following you

When you think of intelligence-gathering robots the images that most readily come to mind today are of low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Predator drone, scanning vast regions of land below them and using high-resolution cameras and sophisticated sensor technology to detect enemy men and materiel.

In the future, however, UAVs may more closely resemble fluttering insects.

In the long term, the U.S. Army certainly sees miniature “bug” UAVs as a big part of its battlefield operations. According to a recently released roadmap, clouds of them would be used to survey buildings and various sites before soldiers enter them.

That future may be closer than people imagine, given the pace of developments in this field. The University of Washington, for example, has developed thermal-powered bug robots that can carry up to seven times their own weight, something that will be essential if these things are to operate in the field for any extended periods while also hefting the sensors needed to gather intelligence.

Needless to say, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is one of the sponsors of this research, along with the National Science Foundation.

Another development consists of small robots that use a new form of artificial intelligence to use insect-like instincts to land and stick to any surface, and then release on command. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s something that is essential for these robot swarms to move over rough terrain, such as would be needed for use in areas devastated by natural or man-made catastrophes.

This perching mechanism allows the tiny bots to conserve energy to the maximum, and is apparently a big advance on past swooping maneuvers used for landing. Releasing has also apparently not been easily possible before. Here’s a cool video showing this.

All things being said, as difficult as a lot of this seems, it’s probably more viable than another DARPA plan to use real insects as spies.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Jul 02, 2010 at 9:03 AM


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