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How Spy Flies Will Work

Fly on the Wall
An artist's concept of a team of Entomopters exploring Mars
An artist's concept of a team of Entomopters exploring Mars
Photo courtesy Robert Michelson

Considering the amount of money that the U.S. military is pumping into MAV (micro air vehicle) projects, it's likely that the first use of these robotic bugs will be as spy flies. DARPA envisions a spy fly that could be used for reconnaissance missions and controlled by soldiers on the ground. This small flying vehicle would not only relay images of troop movements, but it could also be used to detect biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. Additionally, the robotic insect would be able to land on an enemy vehicle and place an electronic tag on it so it could be more easily targeted.

In a 1997 report from DARPA concerning the development of MAVs, the authors wrote that advances in microtechnologies, including microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), would soon make spy flies a feasible idea. He pointed out that microsystems such as CCD-array cameras, tiny infrared sensors and chip-sized hazardous-substance detectors are being made small enough to integrate into a spy fly's architecture.

The military would like an MAV that has a range of approximately 6.2 miles (10 km), flies in day or night and can stay airborne for approximately one hour. DARPA officials say that the ideal speed for an MAV is 22 to 45 mph (35.4 to 72.4 kph). It would be controlled from a ground station, which would employ directional antennas and maintain continuous contact with the MAV.

Robotic flies could also be well-suited as a new generation of interplanetary explorers. The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) has received funding from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) to study the idea using the Entomopter as a flying Mars surveyor. In March 2001, NASA funded the second phase of the study in anticipation of future Mars micromissions.

Entomopters offer several advantages over larger surveyors. They would be able to land, takeoff, hover and perform more difficult maneuvers in flight. Their ability to crawl and fly also gives them an advantage in exploring other planets. Most likely, NASA would send dozens of these surveillance vehicles to explore other planets. Entomopter developer Rob Michelson said that the Mars version of the Entomopter would have to be sized up to have a wingspan of about 1 meter in order to fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars.

Researchers say that these tiny flying robots would also be valuable in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tornadoes or landslides. Their small size and ability to fly and hover make them useful for searching for people buried in rubble. They could fly between crevices that humans and larger machines are unable to navigate. Other uses include traffic monitoring, border surveillance, wildlife surveys, power-line inspection and real-estate aerial photography.

Spy flies are yet another example of how technology is aiding humans in performing dangerous tasks, allowing the humans to stay out of harm's way. Military reconnaissance, searching for earthquake victims and traveling to other worlds are all hazardous activities -- flying microrobots would allow us to accomplish these tasks without actually being there.