Image Credit: AeroVironment

When Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was asked by a company called AeroVironment to develop a small, bird-based flying machine, they were given a list of constraints. These included "no thrusters, no propellers, just flapping wings." The results surprised even the most avid Nano Aerial Vehicles (NAV) fans; this prototype, dubbed "Mercury," looks eerily similar to a hummingbird in flight.

"Mercury" can be controlled and operated from a distance, and has maneuverability that far exceeds that of the everyday pigeon-- the faux birds can swoop, dive, glide, and hover by simply flapping their wings, something that our current fixed-wing aircraft and rotary-wing helicopters can not achieve. This makes similarly constructed designs desirable.


To develop this fascinating technology they turned to nature for inspiration. As versatility and precision were key, they took particularly interest in observing the mechanisms that drive a hummingbird in flight. The team, spearheaded by engineers, built a robotic aircraft whose wings are able to change angle swiftly, and equipped it with a state-of-the-art control system that acts like the hummingbird's tail features to help maneuver the tiny machine. Each piece was custom-built using a small microscope and Swiss watchmaker’s lathe.

Here is a diagram, showing how the facets come together to power Mercury (Credit: AeroVironment)

Formally called the 'Nano Hummingbird,' (also known as the robo-hummingbird) this tiny battery-powered aircraft has a wing-span of 16 centimeters (6.5 inches) and can safely travel at speeds reaching 17 km/h (10.56 mph), whilst resisting gusts of wind of 8 km/h (4.97 mph) -- all of this weighing about 19 grams (2/3 of an ounce) or less than an AA battery. It can also climb and descend vertically, fly horizontally- forward, backward left and right, as well as rotate both clockwise and counter-clockwise.

Future applications may include military surveillance, search-and-rescue missions and perhaps they may eventually have their own place in planetary exploration. The sky is literally the limit for this one.

Mercury in Action:

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