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AeroVironment flies ahead with 'nano' air vehicle

It gets funding from DARPA to build an insect-size device that would conduct recon and surveillance operations indoors and out.

AeroVironment NAV
AeroVironment is set to design and build a 3-inch nano air vehicle for DARPA. AeroVironment

Unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming a big deal for the armed forces, even when they're really small.

AeroVironment said Tuesday that it has gotten the go-ahead, in the form of a Phase II contract, to design and build a teeny-tiny prototype for the Nano Air Vehicle program at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. How teeny? The defense R&D agency stipulates that a NAV must be smaller than 7.5 centimeters (2.9 inches) and, at no more than 10 grams (one-third of an ounce), "ultralightweight."

A key eventual mission for NAVs would be military operations in urban environments, with the insect-sized aircraft capable of performing surveillance and reconnaissance both inside buildings and in the open air. In addition, DARPA says, "the program will advance technologies that enable collision avoidance and navigation systems for use in GPS-denied indoor and outdoor environments and develop efficient methods for hovering flight and deployment or emplacement of sensors."

While DARPA and Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment cite biomimickry--that is, drawing on designs found in nature--as a central concept for NAVs, the NAV sketch on the AeroVironment site looks predominantly like a classic airplane-dropped bomb--with gossamer wings tacked on. (Sort of like the wings that Wile E. Coyote strapped on in one of his cartoon pursuits of Road Runner.)

Wasp III
The Wasp III is now serving with the Air Force. U.S. Air Force

The Phase II contract involves a six-month, $636,000 development program that AeroVironment, which also makes wind turbines for civilian use, says will result in "a rudimentary, three-inch flapping-wing air vehicle system." (Phase I was a $1.7 million program.) If a demo of the NAV is successful, DARPA would have the option to extend the program for 18 months.

AeroVironment has already created small--but not "nano"--UAVs for the Pentagon, including the Raven and the Wasp. A "micro" air vehicle, or MAV, the Wasp can be remotely controlled or programmed for GPS-based autonomous navigation, and it carries a pair of on-board cameras. The Air Force took delivery of its first "BATMAV" (for the Battlefield Air Targeting Micro Air Vehicle program), the Wasp III--with a strapping 29-inch wingspan and weighing in at 1 pound--from the company in 2007.