How drones and insects merged in ways that might surprise you
Hornets, wasps and termites are pests to many households in America, but in 2014, they inspired robot technology in ways that could make them pests on an entirely different level to adversaries.
Here are three interesting programs that are building tiny intelligent flying and crawling robots - that all mimic familiar creatures, by the way - that made news this past year.
Micro drones on a MAST Mission
Is it a wasp? Is it a spider? Is it a fly? What may look like the average neighborhood pesky critter is actually a tiny drone conducting a military surveillance mission.
The Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST) program is the Army Research Laboratory's collaboration with a number of teams.
Kicked off in 2007, the 10-year initiative aims to create intelligent next generation micro robots. BAE Systems is the industrial lead for the project, which also involves the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania.
The MAST-inspired micro robots could provide U.S. ground forces, small units, and individual soldiers with the capability to conduct surveillance within complex urban environments and difficult terrain – significantly increasing their safety.
What do they look like?
One BAE Systems prototype looks like a fly and weighs less than an ounce. Its lightweight carbon joints help the robot imitate real flies. With a wingspan of just over an inch, its wings beat 110 times per second.
The University of Pennsylvania's smallest robot weighs less than three quarters of an ounce and is very quick - travelling at about 53 body lengths per second.
Other tech resembles spiders and lizards.
MAST hopes to produce lots of different microbots that will give Soldiers additional eyes and ears for different environments. The robots could be sent on missions to collect lifesaving data for frontline troops.
If a unit approaches a building and needs to know what's inside, for example, the soldiers could deploy a reconnaissance team of microbots. The robots could penetrate a building undetected, capitalize on their size to move quietly and easily access small spaces, search the interior, map the layout, and provide data like threat locations, bomb making materials, hostage locations, and more.
Or say that a unit needs to enter an area where GPS technology won't function easily, then the microbots could deploy in advance to provide 3D mapping and navigation.
Tiny Black Hornets join the fight
Black Hornet, a state of the art tiny combat drone, reported for duty this year.
Prox Dynamics PD-100 Black Hornet Block II Personal Reconnaissance System is a tiny drone helicopter that can fit into the palm of your hand. The company says it is the world's smallest operational unmanned air system.
It may look like a toy remote control helicopter on the wish list of kids young and old, but it's serious combat tech. Black Hornet is a very sophisticated military tool with three cameras tucked into a very small unit – a pretty impressive engineering feat.
On missions, the tiny drone can travel about three quarters of a mile and provide real-time live motion video back to the operator. It can also take HD photos.
Black Hornet is about four inches long and one inch wide. And this little guy is astonishingly light. It only weighs just over half an ounce - that's like the weight of three sheets of paper.
The entire system, including two Black Hornets, a base station that can fit in your back pocket, a controller and a screen, weighs under three pounds.
How does it work?
This hornet does not attack. Instead, its sting comes in the form of the information it collects, all while being extremely quiet and difficult to spot.
While it has been mostly deployed by forces in rural and rugged terrain, it can also be useful for built-up urban settings as well. Black Hornet's quiet noise profile provides a key advantage to getting very close to its target remaining undetected.
During deployments in Afghanistan for example, the British Army uses Black Hornet to investigate terrain and locate snipers.
Tiny termite-bot deployment teams
Robotic crews that could build new structures on Earth or even Mars – and without human supervision?
Who would have thought the very same termites gnawing at homes would be the inspiration for robots that can build new ones?
TERMES teams consist only of microbots cooperating and working with each other. A human asks them for a particular structure and they just get the job done. They don't need a foreman to get results- human or robotic.
While tiny in size, they could be big on impact.
These tiny robot construction crews could be deployed abroad to support humanitarian operations, like helping the Army Corps of Engineers build bridges and refuges.
In the event of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, these robots could put down sandbag barriers before the storm arrives and help rebuild buildings when it's gone.
A team of computer scientists and engineers from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering has created an autonomous robotic construction crew that will be capable of doing all that and more.
The inspiration? Real termites
In Africa, millions of the tiny insects work together to build very large mounds of soil for their underground nests, facing enormous challenges over the year or so of construction. Weather conditions will erode their project and many termites will die, meaning new termites are needed to carry on for them.
Harvard's TERMES robot system is designed to mimic the behavior of termites. Like termites, the robots can build complex, three-dimensional structures without a central command or prescribed roles.
When humans build structures, they tend to have a blueprint, a plan and a foreman to direct and supervise on site.
In insect colonies, on the other hand, there is no leader to instruct the others. Termites rely on "stigmergy," where they intuitively understand how the other bugs are changing their environment and react without directly communicating.
Thanks to the Harvard team's algorithms, the TERMES robots use a sort of stigmergy, too, allowing very large groups of robots to act as a colony.
On a practical level, this means robot teams -whether it's a few robots or thousands- could deploy and accomplish the mission. As a team, they could adapt to unanticipated events all on their own still working from the same original instructions.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie .