Something You Should See

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In trying to make sure we provide you with only the most interesting pertinent information, we do have to triage through a lot of junk. And, every now and then, we apparently make the mistake of not showing you or telling you about something you may have wanted to see. This might have just happened ... .

Last week, I became aware of a video that shows a very small (roughly fist-sized) UAV that flies like a hummingbird. It has flapping wings and, according to its developer, might ultimately serve as a remote controlled indoor surveillance platform (possibly for our troops). One problem I had right away was that the company does not allow any alteration of their videos -- we can't add value through narration, or perform video edits that could highlight certain features or qualities of the vehicle. Also, the video was shot mostly in slow motion and had frequent edits that only showed the vehicle flying under control for seconds at a time ... mostly while descending. In short, when I watched the video, it didn't suggest to me that the thing actually worked all that well. Actually, to me, it appeared to demonstrate otherwise.

I'll admit that before watching the video it was my suspicion that the concept itself didn't make much sense ... and watching the video didn't help reverse that. I can think of things that are less efficient, but it's not easy. Actually, what first comes to mind are old jittery black and white movies of guys standing on walls strapped to home-made wings and jumping off onto their faces. That, and multi-winged "flying machines" that flapped vigorously until some structural member collapsed and a bunch of men in bowler hats ran over to extract the craft's hapless inventor.

The relationship between history and technology may be divergent, but mechanically changing direction still takes more energy and causes more wear than continuous motion, doesn't it? Controlling such a thing also strikes me as much more complicated, and therefore more expensive, and weighty, than say working with counter-rotating propellers. It all seems rather silly to me.

Lastly, and here's where I admittedly went completely wrong, I think I may have been offended that I was paying for the development of this thing with my tax dollars. The vehicle has earned funding from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. And the only reason it crossed my desk was because AeroVironment, which actually makes a whole host of products that do make very good sense to me, had earned (from DARPA) a contract extension to further develop the device. According to Dr. Todd Hylton of DARPA, the program will "push the limits of aerodynamic and power conversion efficiency, endurance, and maneuverability for very small, flapping wing air vehicle systems." According to AeroVironment the vehicle's longest flight (so far) lasted 20 seconds. ... And, yes, that's better than the Wright brothers did for a while. And, yes, I realize now that all of this makes this thing something you probably want to see.

Comments (6)

"...mechanically changing direction still takes more energy and causes more wear than continuous motion, doesn't it?"

The same can be said about helicopters. But that aside, the developers of this device must have felt the paradoxon that man-made flying machines work completely different from the way nature solved the same problem. How efficient are aircraft? Compared to birds and insects, aircraft are noisy and they are not impact resilient.

Similar differences are apparent when comparing computers with the human brain.

Posted by: Tim Toussaint | July 6, 2009 2:58 AM    Report this comment

...Speaking of impact resillient, why didn't they show the thing landing? Like they say, a good landing is one you can walk away from. A great landing is one where you can use the aircraft again.

Posted by: Jud Phillips | July 6, 2009 10:04 AM    Report this comment

Getting blood and nerves through a stationary hub into a living wing on a flying creature has not yet happened on this planet. Be patient. An oscillating wing does contribute less force as it reverses direction, but hey. Think about how complex the nerve connections would be, but then think of what you could do with a conscious rotary wing that articulated like your hand does, or like a buzzard's wingtip does. It would be great. You could land on anything that could hold your weight. Maybe in another couple of hundred million years something like that may evolve. Until then, they'll just all have to flap. That system has worked well for everything from insects to rather large pterosaurs. We humans rarely get to improve on nature but rotary wings or propellers are more efficient than flapping wings but you can't grow such a thing so far because of the difficulty of getting blood and nerves through the hub.
That said, the folks at AeroVironment never fail to impress.

Posted by: Jack Romanski | July 6, 2009 10:24 AM    Report this comment

Neat little thing. Eventually set up properly, it could look like and act like a bird! Potentially very stealthy, very dangerous, and something I don't want to find flying anywhere near me! Perhaps they will even invent a suicide version that will explode as it flies over someone's head!

Posted by: Charles Elliot | July 6, 2009 12:38 PM    Report this comment

DARPA, like other government agencies, has become trapped by its incestuous relationships with its vendors. Lockheed, Boeing, AeroVironment, Aurora -- all these companies have staff that live on patently stupid, government-funded science projects like increasing the efficiency of aircraft by 90%; and making teeny aircraft that can't really fly, let alone do anything; etc.

Yes, sure, all this nonsense can be defended under the mantra of "stretch goals," but how about stretching in the real world, where hard work and scientific discipline actually accomplish useful things?

I have watched everything from Bede to Eclipse in my lifetime, and am incensed to find that the callow newbies who sit in government procurement offices are bait for all the same kind of rubbish.

That's my money they are wasting and it hacks me off. Having just been laid off in this glorious People's Era of Hope and Change and Government Fiat, I have stronger opinions about all this that I will leave to your imagination.

Why is it that so many aviation people, steeped as they are in the science and technicalities of flight, are prey to the dumbest pipe dreams that come down the pike? Has relativism finally crept into the teaching of the scientific method?

God help us all.

Posted by: S Lanchester | July 8, 2009 4:45 AM    Report this comment

From the AeroVironment proposal to DARPA:


“Yes, Komerade, Hugo.”

“Come see the Venezuelan Fooe Bird on my shoulder. Is it not nice?”

“Very nice. What does it do?”

“It is a symbol of great position in my country, proving how glorious my regal leadership is in our People’s Republik of Venezuela.”

“Why does it have DARPA-AV HMG-BRD” printed on it?”

“A mere mutation, not to worry. We have thousands of them, a gift from the Bush family in a futile attempt to ingratiate them with my country after 8 years of their shameful reminders of American exceptionalism.”

“How clever of you to co-opt their transparent exceptionalism by making it a sign of Venezuelan pride.”

“I just wish this buzzing contraption would quit pooping on me.” Shoo, Fooe!”

KA-POWWWWW. (Rubble everywhere. Two glorious mock-military hats lay amid the carnage.)

Moral: If the Fooe shits, wear it.

Notice -- pursuant to paperwork reduction act of some idiotic Congress -- NOo primeval trees were killed in the production of this notice. Thank you very much.

Posted by: S Lanchester | July 8, 2009 5:20 AM    Report this comment

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