Future Drones to Sport Insect Eyes, Vertical Takeoff and Automatic Landings
Tiny drones could soon swarm across the United States as well as foreign battlefields, but they'll need the eyes and nimble reflexes of insects to avoid costly midair collisions in the crowded skies. The U.S. Air Force also wants robotic fliers that can take off and land vertically, as well as stealthily land by themselves to avoid drawing enemy fire.
Such technologies stand out on the Air Force's drone wish list in its call for Small Business Innovative Research proposals. Together, they suggest a future dominated by new flocks of robotic fliers, many of them smaller than the aircraft-size drones that helped track down Osama bin Laden .
Existing drones such as the Predator can already land by themselves, but the Air Force wants to extend that ability to smaller covert drones deployed by ground warriors. Ideally, such drones could land without using either GPS or radio frequency emissions that could give away their landing and perhaps endanger the human recovery team.
That forms part of the Air Force's vision for future drones that can better take care of themselves. Another Air Force request aims for a drone health monitoring system that alerts human handlers when the robots' sensor systems need repair. And a Northrop Grumman Proteus test aircraft and a NASA Global Hawk have already begun practicing for midair refueling on their own in 2012.
The Air Force also has an eye on drones that can take off and land without runways. One of its requests is for a drone with a 10-feet wingspan that can launch or land in an area just under 10 feet wide, stay airborne for five hours and still cruise at 70 mph.
But the insect vision in particular could open the door to both civilian and military drones . Some sort of sense and avoidance system is necessary for unmanned aerial vehicles to operate in U.S. national airspace alongside the helicopters and aircraft that already fill the skies.
Current drones rely upon video camera eyes to detect other flying objects that might pose the threat of a collision, but it's a cumbersome computational job that takes time. By contrast, flies and mosquitos have the responsive survival systems to detect motion and swiftly dodge incoming swatters or hands.
Any insect-like detector must have a wide field of view and use fewer than 50 watts less power than that used by many household light bulbs. It must also enable the drone to detect collision threats more than 2.5 nautical miles away, and have less than three false alarms an hour. Whatever the solution, it will prove essential to keeping the crowded skies of the future safe for both humans and robots alike.