Coming Soon to a War Near You: Robo-Hummingbird Drones?

By Patrick Morgan | February 18, 2011 3:32 pm

The next time you enjoy the sight of a hummingbird in a garden, you might want to look twice–because it could be the government’s new avian-inspired drone. Dubbed “Nano Hummingbird,” this camera-toting, remote-controlled surveillance tool is the latest gadget to fly out the doors of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency).

Commissioned by the Pentagon in 2006 and designed by AeroVironment, this bird-drone’s abilities match its $4 million price tag: It flies forward, backward, and sideways, and it can even hover in mid-air. That’s not bad for a battery-powered, 6.5-inch long bundle of communication systems and motors that weighs in at two-thirds of an ounce. “We’ve achieved what our customer asked us to,” AeroVironment Vice President Steve Gitlin told TIME Magazine. But with the robot’s maximum speed clocking in at 11 miles per hour, natural hummingbirds can fly circles around this bot.

DARPA hopes Nano Hummingbird could eventually be used as an extra eye on the battlefield.

Video shows the drone flying outside and in, successfully maneuvering through a doorway. AeroVironment says it has reached “a technical milestone never before achieved — controlled precision hovering and fast-forward flight of a two-wing, flapping wing aircraft that carries its own energy source, and uses only the flapping wings for propulsion and control.” [TIME Magazine]

The current model is not without its limitations: it can only stay in flight for 8 to 11 minutes. But that’s over 24 times longer than what it could achieve only two years ago.

The next step is likely to be further refinement of the technology, officials said, before decisions are made about whether the drones would be mass-produced and deployed. [Los Angeles Times]

News of this diminutive drone leaves some people both awed and slightly scared:

“The miniaturization of drones is where it really gets interesting,” said defense expert Peter W. Singer, author of “Wired for War,” a book about robotic warfare. “You can use these things anywhere, put them anyplace, and the target will never even know they’re being watched.” [Los Angeles Times]

For the time-being at least, you can rest assured, because there is at least one way to tell whether that hummingbird outside your window is indeed all that it seems: just sit tight for 10 minutes and see whether your fluttering friend sticks around or flops to the ground.

Related Content:
80beats: When a Hummingbird Goes Courting, He Moves Faster Than a Fighter Jet
80beats: Scientists Glean Secrets of Flight From Birds, Bats, and Bugs
80beats: Pterodactyl-Shaped Spy Plane May Soon Take to the Skies
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Anna’s hummingbird outflies falcons and fighter pilots
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Tobacco plants foil very hungry caterpillars by switching pollinators to hummingbirds

Image: AeroVironment

  • Idlewilde

    ”Hey, captain, is that hummingbird a robot or not?”

    ”I don’t know, cadet, be on the safe side and shoot it with your auto aiming gun.”


  • Michelle

    Pretty bad imitation of a hummingbird.
    Any bird watcher could tell the difference in 5 seconds or less.

  • NB

    If this is to be used in a crime/terrorism scene, I don’t think they are going for “let’s hope people would mistake it for a hummingbird and leave it alone” here. It’s not like hummingbirds can be seen anywhere… they exist only in very specific areas with very specific climate. Even if it this mechanic hummingbird can stay as silent as a hummingbird (doubtful) and look close enough to a hummingbird to mistaken for one (also doubtful), the presence of a hummingbird flying would immediately raise suspicion. I mean, how many people can say they are likely to see a hummingbird just walking around the neighborhood.

  • NB

    Besides, that looks WAY bigger than a hummingbird.

  • MT-LA

    To the people knocking the fact that this nano-hummingbird doesn’t look enough like the real thing: that’s not the point!
    The accomplishment here is the size and control of a vehicle that is using pure flapping propulsion with enough power to have a camera on board and the radio tech necessary to Tx/Rx.

    “That SR-71 Blackbird looks NOTHING like a black bird. Silly Americans!”

  • Brian Too

    Hummingbird ≠ weapon of war.


  • quarksparrow

    @NB: I see hummingbirds all the time when ‘walking around the neighbourhood’. Like most wildlife, you only notice them if you’re accustomed to looking for them. And there are hummer species larger than this thing (the largest is 8 inches).

    But having said that … no, it doesn’t look like a real bird. But I think that’s beside the point. And I still want one. 😉

  • aWriter

    Good grief. I’m happy to see that some respondents understand and respect the accomplishment here. Anything to rip down the defenses of our country. Thank you, MT-LA and quarksparrow. I want one, too. Congratulations, AeroVironment.

  • Sage Thrasher

    Buy shutters!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar