Friday, June 27, 2014

Fish, insect, and bat drones. Oh my!

For the "it sounds like a cyberpunk story" file.

Biotechnology has been co-opted into the design of the next generation of drones.  In fact, it is nature itself providing the inspiration for the robots.  You can see a few of these designs at this link from the BBC.

The journal of Bioinspiration and Biomimetics features 14 different research teams and their robotic developments.  Many of these designs are based on birds, insects, and even snakes.  The reason for this is rather humbling.  Drones don't fare well in high winds.  Butterflies, hummingbirds, and even pigeons on the other hand do just fine.  What can be learned from this in regard to wing structure?

For that matter, what can a bat teach us about drone design?  That was the creature one set of innovators chose to emulate.  Turns out that a bat's membrane wings are ideal in terms of form, flexibility, and ability to absorb shock and impact.  "They deform instead of breaking," explained Prof. David Lentink of Stanford University. "They are also adapting better to the airflow because they're so flexible."

Insects are another model of choice. Tiny robots with optical sensors based on insect eyes would allow for them to navigate in narrow, confined areas such as urban environs.  Harvard University has developed an insect-sized drone that is built out of carbon fiber and weighs less than a gram.  Building on insect capabilities, it is also thought that these drones could coordinate efforts in a swarm pattern.

Imagine that.

While the design teams interviewed by the BBC all stressed that drone development must be undertaken with a focus on ethics and benefiting society, one must remain skeptical.  Not of the motivations of these fine people but of what happens when the technological genii is out of the bottle.  These kinds of things inevitably make their way onto the battlefield.  More than that, they often end up entirely changing just how humans fight wars.

The small size of these drones make them ideal for surveillance and gathering intelligence.  As they get smaller and maybe approach a micro size, which it is only logical that they would, such devices could infiltrate and exfiltrate with little or no detectable signs.  And what of the aforementioned "swarm functions?"  Wetworks, anyone?

Robot drones aren't even confined to the air anymore.  There are plenty of varieties that travel underwater such as the kind employed in the search for Flight 370.  Military applications likewise abound for these drones too.  China currently has access to a shark-like unmanned drone with long range capabilities.  These fishy things could be deployed for minesweeping missions that would otherwise be too dangerous for people or for submarine detection/monitoring or for the perennial espionage mission.  Of course likening it to a shark has me thinking about silly things like robo-sharks with lasers for eyes.

Guess I'll write yet another cyberpunk story after all.

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