Like many other media outlets we too were struck by recent front page reports of tiny camera drones which were under trial for combat zones and surveillance duties. The 16 gram PD-100 Black Hornet for example, made by Norwegian company Prox Dynamics, is state of the art, can operate for 25 minutes up to 1000 feet away and in winds of up to 15 knots.
This is not science fiction, but today’s reality, and as the BBC reported last week, there are a number of them already operating in Afghanistan. But are we the only ones to be a little disturbed by this latest development in the ‘war on terror’ or whatever the current phrase is?
There’s no shortage of science fiction literature which feature tiny flying surveillance camera gadgets, and recent technology advances have made it clear that components are now smaller and less power hungry than ever before, to the point where tiny spy craft are feasible at surprisingly normal prices. This has genuinely disturbing implications for the future of citizen privacy in all sorts of ways.
When, not if, these products become commodity level cheap, and functionally efficient to the point where they can be left operating for long stretches of time (and don’t think of today’s battery technology, think of ultra low power motors and solar combos), how long do you think it will be before these things are deployed in most urban situations by law enforcement agencies and government forces?
You think CCTV is an intrusion? You ain’t seen nothing yet. So how far away are we? Well judging by some of these flying prototypes and actual retail products, not that long. We suspect that within 3 to 5 years we’ll see something which is small enough, ultra low power and with enough of a camera payload to make Philip K. Dick turn in his grave. This stuff isn’t Sci-Fi any more.
The Monolithic Bee
Still under development by Prof Robert Wood and his team at Harvard Microrobotics Lab, the Monolithic Bee is likely to be the ultimate micro aviation vehicle once it moves off the drawing board and into the air for real.
What makes Mobee so special is the fact that it can be mass produced cheaply using one-piece fabrication, which means it’s possible to imagine literally hundreds of these things being deployed at a time in a surveillance ‘swarm’ which could make countermeasures extremely difficult, if not impossible. Scared yet?
The DelFly Micro
Weighing just 3 grams and just 10 cm from wing tip to wing tip, this is a really tiny flyer by any measure. Not only that, but it comes complete with a 16.07g onboard camera, all powered by a 130 mAh Lithium Ion battery which can keep the bird aloft for 15 minutes during horizontal flight.
Developed by the University of Delft in the Netherlands, it’s the smallest flapping wing camera plane in the world. Video here.
The Rotor DragonFly
With an 8.3cm wingspan, and developed by the Bionik Dept of Berlin’s Technical University, this tiny craft has more in common with a bumble bee than a bird, but the end result is still the same… a tiny hovering aircraft which could one day be used for all sorts of purposes including search and rescue. More info here (translation).
If you were looking for proof that this technology is currently white hot, then the TechJet Dragonfly is a good place to start. This barely off the drawing board project just captured over $1.1 million dollars in crowdfunding, despite offering up just a few scanty videos and images. And this after already plowing through a $1 million grant from the US Air Force.
Either the technology is extremely difficult to perfect, or there’s some other reason why the product hasn’t yet made it to market. The company promises to deliver on their plans by this summer, so we guess all eyes should keep watching the skies. Video here.
CrazyFlie Nano Quadcopter
From crazy concept to Crazyflie Nano Quadcopter, a ready to fly beauty which has already sold out of first production run, due sometime in March. The $173 flyer weighs just 19 gms and has a flight time of 7 minutes with the standard 170mAh LiPo battery.
The Swedish developed quadcopter is also crazy open source, so expect some amazing user hacks to arrive shortly before the Swedish air force kick down the door and confiscate all their playthings in the interests of national security. Video.
No idea whether this is a commercial work in progress, or simply one man’s fancy, but it’s an incredibly impressive piece of engineering either way. It weighs a truly amazing 7.7 gms, uses a 70mAh battery and from the look of the videos flies beautifully. Now imagine what these little things could do with improved battery technology and ultra tiny cameras on board and you have some idea of the future.
Before you start laughing, this thing actually exists and it not only flies, but looks scarily similar to a bird. Take a look at the video of the thing in action and you’ll see what we mean. The flying bird program has been underway for over 5 years now, and it doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to think what they’ll develop over the next five. Remember these are the same people who came up with the Robot Donkey!
And before we leave, what about that incredible image at the top of the post? Is it real or fake?
Well, despite the flurry of news surrounding the image, we have to conclude that it’s more pie-in-the-sky than fly-in-the-sky right now, especially since there’s no footage or other confirmation of the product actually existing anywhere that we can see.
That doesn’t mean it’s not out there, of course, but we’re doubtful whether right now the battery technology exists to make something that small which could run for longer than 20 seconds. But watch this space, as they say.