Holy Morphing Seagulls, Batman!
It's an idea that sounds just a little scary; Orwellian, even...
if only it weren't so cool.
Researchers at the University of Florida have developed a set of
micro air vehicles (MAVs) that can morph shape while in flight --
with the ultimate goal of creating autonomous spy vehicles with 2-3
years that, to onlookers below, might look like just another bird
The study, funded by the US Air Force and NASA, determined how
best to reproduce the natural movements of seagulls, in machines
barely larger than a children's toy (or a real bird, for that
According to the report
by BBC News, engineers were able to mimic the wing actions of the
medium-size birds almost exactly, creating machines that can morph
into different shapes while in flight. These MAVs would be deployed
in close-quartered urban environments, where the crafts could
maneuver in tight areas such as alleys and apartment buildings.
"We realized we needed better agility and maneuverability to
move in the city so we asked, 'well, how do birds to do it?'"
explained University of Florida researcher Dr. Rick Lind. "The
ultimate aim is to have an on-board autopilot so it can fly by
itself through cities to search for bio-agents."
A great idea, that, as are potential search-and-rescue
applications, as well as bomb detection -- although it's not hard
to imagine another potential mission for the MAVs: espionage.
Those involved with the study are even testing a system that
would allow an on-station MAV to shoot tiny, microphone-equipped
darts into rooms or vehicles where suspicious activities might be
taking place, sending any information gathered back to a central
control facility. (Okay... is anyone else just a little freaked out
While the idea of changing the shape of an aircraft while in
flight is hardly a new idea -- see the warping wings of the Wright
Brothers Flyer, for example, or variable wing-geometry aircraft
like the B-1 bomber or soon-to-be-retired F-14 -- it is a
relatively new idea to couple the technology with an onboard
autopilot aboard such a small vehicle. Such a system would
conceivably allow an MAV to automatically change its shape to adapt
to almost any environment.
The drones currently range from 6 inches to two feet in
wingspan. They are similar to craft being developed by DARPA,
although much smaller. That's just the beginning, though.
Eventually, such craft will be shrunken to the size of insects,
working in "swarms" from a hovering "mother ship" (those are the
researchers' words, not ours) and even possessing the ability to
change color -- allowing those vehicles to almost totally blend in
with their surroundings.
"They will be like biological systems so that they mimic birds
much more than they do now," said Dr. Lind.