Hummingbird, or Secret Robotic Spy?
Hummingbird, or Secret Robotic Spy?

We’ve seen countless spy movies where the fearless protagonist is being tracked by video cameras shaped like owls or robotic insects with surveillance gear.  Most of us simply paid those fun fantasies no mind, but those at DARPA seem to have gotten quite upset that they didn’t think of it first.  Well, in a bid to out-smart Hollywood, they have contracted the California company AeroVironment (such a wholly terrible name that they only refer to themselves as AV) to create a mechanized hummingbird.  It looks like plans for our nation’s defense is being torn page-by-page right from the book of Michael Bay.

The project right now is very hush-hush, with the AV website dropping only the DARPA bomb and a computer generated picture of what it would look like in finished form.  Dubbed the Nano Air Vehicle (NAV), the project is intended to mimic nature and one only needs to delve into the imagination to figure out exactly what dastardly deeds may be accomplished through this avian impostor.  Well, chances are it wouldn’t be very useful in places that do not have hummingbirds as an indigenous species, but that’s beside the point.

Normally, this type of project would not deserve a feature on Singularity Hub, after all, how many DARPA projects come to fruition and, of those, how many does the general public know to exist?  What separates this hummingbird from the rest of the flock is a pretty awesome video of preliminary flight tests.  Check it out below:

The video shows the tailless prototype progress through different phases of testing, emerging from a cocoon of research to be a fully functioning, free flying vehicle of terror.  The video begins with tethered flight, showing that the NAV system is capable of turning.  Being one of the few things that hummingbirds actually do, it is a great start for the fledgling system.  And, as Ron Popeil would say, “but wait, there’s more”: the testing continues, showing in slow motion the hummingbird-like wings flapping wildly through the air.  The NAV can even hover, mimicking yet another thing that hummingbirds can do in real life.

Really, this robot is capable of almost anything but sucking nectar from a plant.  It is an astonishing sight to behold, as the strange but endearing engineer standing at the helm makes the “mercury” prototype float through the room.  That, however, begs the question, where is this going to go next?

The NAV could be outfitted with surveillance equipment and used to spy at long range upon some of the harshest guerrillas, drug lords and dictators of South America with them being none the wiser.  Sure, there are probably other ways to go about it, but none have the style or pizazz that a robotic spying hummingbird would.  Even so, there is definitely more to this little hummingbot than just surveillance duty.  Who knows where the technology will go, but the progress with these tiny flying vehicles is simply astounding.  Still not amazed?  Take a look at one of our old favories, the robotic butterfly:

The only question is what’s next for DARPA?  Mattel already tried the broomstick from Harry Potter with disastrous results.  Perhaps GM should consider making their cars transform.  Maybe then they’d sell one or two.

Andrew is a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, MA with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. While at Northeastern, he worked on a Department of Defense project intended to create a product that adsorbs and destroys toxic nerve agents and also worked as part of a consulting firm in the fields of battery technology, corrosion analysis, vehicle rollover analysis, and thermal phenomena. Andrew is currently enrolled in a Juris Doctorate program at Boston College School of Law.