Robot aircraft to take videocam into battle

Honeywell is test-flying a Micro Air Vehicle with an uncommon power train. It's mission? Help soldiers keep their heads down. Photo: This robot flies

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
2 min read
A flying video camera could soon be part of a soldier's field gear--just the sort of thing you need if you want to know whether there's someone around the corner with a grenade launcher.

Electronics giant Honeywell is testing the Micro Air Vehicle, a flying robot with two cameras that deliver live video feeds to soldiers on the ground. Designed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, it stands about 17 inches tall on its landing gear and can be carried in a backpack.

Mobile Air Vehicle

"It is designed to fly between ground level and 500 feet, but it could go up to 10,500 feet," said Vaughn Fulton, program manager for unmanned aerial systems at Honeywell. "It is a scout and reconnaissance type of vehicle. It allows people to see over a hill or around a building."

The vehicle can take off from a standstill and then hover or fly. Unlike a helicopter, which uses a propeller to take off and hover, Honeywell's drone is a ducted air vehicle. A large fan, situated parallel to the ground, draws air in to give the unit lift. An onboard computer then tilts the fan to achieve forward motion.

"The fan is not propelling it through the air but sucking it," Fulton explained.

The vehicle is part of a program within the U.S. military to deploy a greater number of robots in dangerous situations. This month, for instance, the Army will start to deploy a robotic car with a machine gun (the car drives itself, but a human at a distant location controls the gun). Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are testing a robotic helicopter.

A number of start-ups have also emerged recently to capitalize on increasing interest in both robotics and aviation.

As with an increasing number of military projects, Honeywell tried to keep costs down by using standard components when possible. The 4-horsepower engine that powers the unit is actually an off-the-shelf part, similar to those used in high-performance model airplanes. It runs on regular gas, so Honeywell is also working up a unit that consumes diesel.

"Diesel is the fuel of choice for the U.S. Army, and they don't want to carry two kinds of fuel," he said. Duct flight engines, he added, have been around since the 1950s.

So far, Honeywell has only tested the unit on a tether, but it will conduct free flight tests toward the end of the month. In May or June, it will deliver the first units to Fort Benning, Ga., for further testing.

The first units fly autonomously--that is, they steer themselves--but the flight pattern has to be downloaded by a human into the onboard computer. Future versions will likely be able to avoid obstacles on their own, something Berkeley's helicopters can do.