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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:34 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:34

In the annals of aviation, the flight of the AV Nano Hummingbird last month may not rank with Wilbur Wright’s takeoff from Kill Devil Hill in 1903, but it was a landmark nonetheless — the first remote-controlled precision hovering-and-fast-forward flight of a two-wing aircraft that carries its own power source and uses only flapping wings for propulsion.

AeroVironment 's Nano Hummingbird, which has a wingspan of 6.5 inches (16 centimeters), is capable of flying up and down, left and right, forward and backward, as well as rotating clockwise and counterclockwise, under remote control. It carries a video camera for real-time surveillance and guidance by its operator.

The aviation milestone was achieved as part of a contract awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to AeroVironment (AV) to design and build a flying prototype “hummingbird-like” aircraft for the Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) program.

This is a pretty big deal. When NAVs such as the Nano Hummingbird become operational, soldiers fighting a battle in a crowded urban area will be able to use them to fly sophisticated sensors through open windows in buildings to learn about enemy positions. In civilian applications, the NAVs could be used to gather vital information from inside mines, caves and buildings for search and rescue operations.

“The success of the NAV program paves the way for a new generation of aircraft with the agility and appearance of small birds,” said Todd Hylton, DARPA’s NAV program manager.

Inspiration from nature

Including batteries, motors, communications systems and video camera. AV’s handmade prototype weighs two-thirds of an ounce (19 grams), lighter than some actual hummingbirds and less than a AA battery.

It has a removable body fairing shaped to resemble a hummingbird.

AV is circumspect about performance details such as the rate at which the Nano flaps its wings because that information has not yet been cleared for release by DARPA. But Matt Keenon, AV’s project manager and principal investigator on the NAV project, told TechNewsDaily it would be comparable to a hummingbird of the same weight, which would be 20 flaps per second.

The Nano Hummingbird's design could be advantageous in covert intelligence missions, Keenon said — “If it looks like a bird it’ll be less noticeable.”

The aircraft has met or exceeded all DARPA milestones, including the ability to hover for eight minutes, flying from hover to 11 mph forward and then back to hover, and flying from outdoors to indoors and back again through a normal-size doorway.

“The next step is to find the best application,” Keenon said.

Two joysticks

Several government agencies are potential funders of the next stages of development, or further development could be funded internally by AV,  Keenon said.

The Nano Hummingbird is flown by a ground operator using two joysticks, the operator will have a video screen for heads-down control when he or she cannot maintain visual contact with the aircraft, such as after it enters a building.

The current version, Keenon said, is a hybrid device that incorporates aspects of a game controller, the ground controller used for AV’s other unmanned air vehicles, and the control used for model aircraft.

“I do a lot of model airplane flying,” said Kennon, who is also the project’s principal pilot and controller. “When you control it like a model airplane, it’s a pleasure to fly. It’s easier to fly than a model helicopter.”

Things do get a bit dicey while flying inside buildings, he said.

“You’re close to walls and ceilings all the time,” Keenon said. “It’s still a bit of a handful to fly.”

The challenge now, he said, is integrating the multiple systems and sensors needed to make the Nano viable. He also would like to see the tiny unmanned air vehicle be more rugged and durable and have a greater range.

“Flight time is always a big driver for all our UAVs,” Keenon said. “An endurance of around 10 minutes would be a target for a usable mission. If it flew 40 minutes, it would be amazingly spectacular.”

AeroVironment is best known for small, unmanned aircraft such as the RQ-11 Raven. Its Raven, which weighs 4.2 pounds (1.9 kilograms) and can stay aloft for 90 minutes, has been used extensively by U.S. troops in Afghanistan for surveillance.

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

© 2012 TechNewsDaily

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