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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Robotic insect takes to the air
Robotic insect prototype, BBC
Prototype: 'At the same stage as the Wright brothers'
By BBC Science's Dr Chris Riley

Engineers have test flown a prototype of the world's first robotic insect.

It is hoped that future generations of this curious craft could carry tiny spy cameras into buildings.

The designers, at a California-based company called AeroVironment, have been building micro-spy planes for years.

Their fixed wing "Black Widow", a tiny black pocket plane just 15 cm (6 in) in diameter, is already being used by the military for surveillance behind enemy lines.

"From a hundred metres above the ground it is hardly detectable to the eye and ear and can beam back crystal clear pictures of the ground below," says project manager Matt Keennon.

But the team's ultimate dream is to build something they can fly inside a building without bumping into walls.

Insect inspiration

The Black Widow flies too fast to navigate carefully around a room.

And what these pioneers of micro-flight wanted to do was create a craft which could fly slowly, change direction with ease and hover in the corner of a room.

Their inspiration came from the world of insects.

Insect wings often beat with a complex figure of eight motion, which gives excellent mid-air manoeuvrability, but is very hard for engineers to mimic.

'More like a bat'

AeroVironment's latest attempt is dubbed "Microbat", because the 20 cm (8 in) long robot flaps its wings more like a bat than an insect.

Such flapping wing aircraft - called ornithopters - have been around for years, says AeroVironment ornithopter engineer Joel Grasmeyer.

"Our challenge has been to create a small, ultra-light wing to give us enough lift to carry an electric motor and battery into the air."

In a smoky wind tunnel at the University of California at Los Angeles, doctoral students Nick Pornsin-Sirirak and Steven Ho have come up with a wing which gives as much lift as the insect wings they have been studying.

Wright brothers

They admit that when it comes to micro-flapping flight, they are at about the same stage that the Wright brothers were in 1903.

But the ultra-light wings they have designed and built out of a thin polythene film and a simple carbon-fibre skeleton seem to give enough lift.

And fitted to Microbat, they can keep the little robot aloft for as long as its tiny battery lasts.

We might be far from machines which can master the air as well as insects and carry tiny cameras, but the spy's dream to become a fly on the wall might one day come true.

Watch Microbat being put through its paces on Tomorrow's World on Wednesday at 1900 BST on BBC 1

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