[ASC-media] Media release: tiny war flyers

JCA Media jcamedia at starclass.com.au
Tue Aug 24 22:05:23 EST 2004

Sir Mark Oliphant Conferences 2004 Media Release


Tiny man-made aircraft will soon prowl the battlefield, guard our borders, keep watch for terrorists and criminals and explore where humans cannot easily go.

Researchers at the Defence Science and Technology Organization (DSTO) and Australian National University (ANU) are applying the tricks used by insects to stabilize, steer, avoid collisions, navigate and overcome drift to the next generation of ultra-tiny flyers.

The goal, says DSTO's Dr Javaan Chahl, is ultimately to build a flyer no larger than one's hand and weighing only a few tens of grammes. But such a device would be almost impossible for a human to guide - so it has to have its own on-board autopilot.

"Insects have solved all these problems in very neat ways, and we are applying some of them to MAVs - or micro aerial vehicles," Dr Chahl explains.

His team has used the polarized light in the sky, which insects used to orient themselves but humans cannot see, as a way to control aircraft direction.

It is also developing 'optical flow' - the relative motion of objects seen near or far -  as a method of flight control, and horizon-detection as a guide to stabilization and steering.

"If a micro flyer is to weigh 50 grammes in total, then this means its flight control systems have to weigh next to nothing, as it will need most of its payload just to keep airborne and perform its tasks."

Using mere photons, passive optical sensors - whether they detect visible light, polarized light, infra-red or other emissions - can potentially be extremely small, as they are in insects. Present state-of-the art sensors weigh just 2-3 grammes, but Dr Chahl is confident that science will eventually be able to imitate the efficiency of the insect's equipment - which weighs fractions of a milligram, yet accomplishes complex steering and navigational tasks.

The initial applications of MAVs are likely to be military - for protecting troops and convoys from unexpected attack, patrolling borders and unsafe areas.

However small flying robots are also expected to play a part in exploring Mars, using insect polarised light navigation to overcome the lack of a magnetic pole on the Red Planet.

As the technology becomes cheaper, Dr Chahl envisions its application in crime-fighting, agriculture, the environment - anywhere a pair of stealthy insect eyes might come in handy.

The Sir Mark Oliphant Conference on Insect Sensors and Robotics is being held at Emanuel College, the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, from August 23-25, 2004. 

Media are welcome to attend and interview participants.

More information:
Dr Javaan Chahl, DSTO, + 61 (0)7 3871 9100
Professor M. Srinivasan, Australian National University, 0410 417 685
M.Srinivasan at anu.edu.au

Information on the conference:

Prof Julian Cribb, media contact, ph 0418 639 245

More stories: www.sciencealert.com.au

August 25, 2004

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