Scientists for the U.S. Naval Research Lab have invented a miniature drone small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. Dubbed the Cicada, the vehicle can be dropped from the sky like a mobile phone with wings.
According to Phys.org, the micro air vehicle is named after the insect that inspired its invention, the Cicada, which spends years underground before appearing in great swarms, reproducing and then dropping to the ground dead.
Aaron Kahn, who works at the Naval Research Laboratory, said, “The ideal was ‘why can’t we make unmanned aerial vehicles that have the same sort of profile.’”
“We will put so many out there, it will be impossible for the enemy to pick them all up,” he said.
The Cicada is designed to glide to pre-programed GPS coordinates after being dropped from a larger air vehicle. Having no motor and made up of only 10 parts, the micro air vehicle looks a lot like a paper airplane with a circuit board attached.
Three years ago, a test was conducted in Yuma, Arizona. Released from 57,600 feet, the Cicada drones landed within 15 feet of their target.
Short for Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, the Cicada was developed to be cheaper, smaller and simpler than any other robotic aircraft. Kahn, a flight controls engineer at the naval lab, said the prototype only cost about a thousand dollars. The cost could reduce to as little as $250, not bad for a robotic aircraft that is able to carry out a mission in a remote war zone.
“It looks like a bird flying down,” said Daniel Edwards, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Lab. Virtually silent, the drone can fly about 46 miles per hour. “It’s very difficult to see,” he added.
Phys.org reported that researchers have equipped the Cicada during tests with sensors that can send back weather readings. However, they said the micro air vehicles could be outfitted in the future with a wide range of light-weight sensors.
“They are robotic carrier pigeons. You tell them where to go, and they will go there,” Edwards said.
As part of an effort by U.S. defense officials to promote technological innovation, Edwards had the Cicadas on display at the Pentagon’s “lab day” this week. According to him, academics and just about every branch of government have expressed an interest in the Cicada program, including some intelligence agencies.
“Everyone is interested. Everyone,” Edwards said.