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The rise of insect-inspired drones

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They are the most ubiquitous form of life on the planet; there are approximately 10 quintillion of them and their combined weight is about 70 times more than all 7 billion humans put together. Yes – insects are everywhere and they are inspiring companies to pursue smaller and more audacious drones.

There are 273 species of flying insect and among the numerous varieties of flies, mosquitos, wasps, bees and others – each has a slightly different way of flying. Nature frequently inspires designers, architects and technologists. It is not surprise then, that the industry tasked with building all manner of flying vehicles look to the insect world for inspiration when it comes to building nano drones.

Insect-inspired drones tend to be significantly smaller than your regular UAVs. Although the likes of the DJI Air is already small at 6.6 inches (168 mm) long, nano drones can be just 1 inch long (25mm).

Different species of flying insect have inspired drone designers of nano drones.

Engineering issues associated with tiny drones

When drones are very small, the rules of aerodynamics apply differently. One of the major hurdles that face manufacturers of tiny drones inspired by insects is that their batteries do not last very long. Battery technology is improving all the time but if you want a drone that looks and behaves in a similar way to an insect they need to be lightweight and highly-manoeuvrable. It has been estimated that to overcome the engineering hurdles required to make commercially viable nano drones, it could take as long as 15-30 years.

What are some examples of nano drones currently in action?

Prox Dynamics AS of Norway have designed the Black Hornet Nano (below). It is 4 inches x 1 inch (10 cm x 2.5 cm) and currently in use by German, Dutch, British and Norwegian forces. It was first deployed in Afghanistan in 2012 and its tiny size allows it to land on windowsills or other covert spots to capture images for the operator.

The Hornet is equipped with three cameras (one pointed straight forward, one pointing down and one at a 45 degree angle). This gives the pilot the ability to film and take photos during reconnaissance missions.

Future applications for insect / nano drones?

One can easily envision such technology being deployed in fields involving hard to reach places. They could fly down drains or sewers or be deployed in disaster zones to reach areas that rescuers or emergency services could not usually access.  Obviously – drones that are tiny pose an enormous risk for people’s privacy and it will be essential for authorities worldwide to draft stringent laws governing nano drone usage. Given the frequency with which regular-sized drones are abused, the risk of tiny drones falling into the wrong hands and being used for mischief is high.

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