A micro-aviary of drones that look—and fly—like ladybugs, dragonflies, and other insects. Since 2008, George Huang, professor of engineering at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has managed to produce a butterfly model with a 5-inch wingspan. “We haven’t done a final version where we declare victory,” Huang says. “I’ll be happy once it’s fly-sized.”
Darpa and the Air Force have already invested in similarly tiny craft, though with no firm time horizon for deployment. Regardless, micro-drones’ potential goes beyond the military. “Police could use them to fly into a drug trafficker’s house,” Huang says. “Or in a nuclear or mining accident, you can send a fly inside to find victims.”
A swarm of five Frisbee-sized drones equipped with Wi-Fi transmitters that form a kind of aerial Napster. As conceived by Liam Young, cofounder of London-based think tank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, they can “appear, broadcast their network, then disperse and re-form in another part of the city.”
After a spotty test flight last November (two of the drones crashed into a river), the file-sharing copters are set to take to the sky this summer at a Dublin science festival called Hack the City. Meanwhile, the Pirate Bay has announced that it’s building its own fleet. File-sharing drones, like file-sharing itself, hover in a legal gray zone, but Young’s not shaken by the prospect of prosecution. “We see it as our responsibility to get people talking about this,” he says. Done.
The GoJett, a supersonic drone designed to hit Mach 1.4—over 1,000 miles per hour—while weighing less than a person and costing as little as $50,000. Aerospace engineering professor Ryan Starkey and his students at the University of Colorado in Boulder modified their hobby-grade turbojet engine to include military-grade bells and whistles, like nozzles that narrow to accelerate airflow. They’re also working with NASA to develop foil bearings that ride on cushions of air, allowing the engine to be oil-free. Laboratory tests have confirmed that it’s twice as efficient as any engine its size, and Starkey plans to double the efficiency again before its maiden flight.
Low-speed flight tests begin this fall, then shift to high-speed tests in 2013. If successful, Starkey imagines, the GoJett could be used for civilian applications, like penetrating hurricanes to gather data. And Mach 1.4 is just a start. “We’re working on engine technology that’ll go Mach 2 to 3,” Starkey says. “Our first goal, once this is over, will be going faster.”