Hovering unobtrusively yet ominously in the background, small robotic spies or remote observers are staples of science fiction. The form they take varies importantly, but rarely are they any bigger than a basketball. They fly, hover and perform amazing maneuvers-all to keep their usually unsuspecting targets in sight.
This spy in the sky of science fiction could be keeping an eye on your neighborhood before long. With roots in expensive military intelligence-gathering drones, smaller, cheaper versions have potential for more down-to-earth applications. Advances in materials science, improvements in battery performance, and smaller, more efficient electric motors have helped create a vehicle that can operate in modern everyday life.
The platform for such an aerial surveillance system could have been an airplane or a helicopter or even an ornithopter. (Yes, people are already working on a mechanical pigeon spy.) In fact, all it takes is a trip to your local hobby store for a radio-controlled flyer. Attach a miniature camera on the front and a video screen on the controller and voila! You are now in the aerial surveillance business.
While each type of vehicle has its advantages, the helicopter looks to be the best candidate to serve a wider range of applications. Its ability to hover and easily change direction and speed are major advantages that favor the helicopter platform. The helicopter-based spy will be the type which hovers and darts silently and effectively – like the robotic spotters that populate those worlds of science fiction.
A Convergence of Technologies
The key to making these flying surveillance devices a reality is the miniaturization of cameras and other sensors so they can be put on a platform of this size. The video camera – needed for guidance as well as for actual surveillance – is the centerpiece of these miniature drones. The refined capacity of modern remote control systems that has responded from electronics advances is also of major importance. The precise maneuverability available in the current crop of radio-controlled vehicles makes this concept workable, reducing the risk of collision in crowds, between buildings, or in traffic. Police in the UK are currently evaluating drones that can track criminal suspects, and even squirt them with a tracking fluid!
Using radically different designs than their toy counterparts, these devices provide a more stable and durable platform for their payloads. Their design gives them an unusual and futuristic OK, science fiction-type look. They have features like GPS assist for navigation, shielding against electromagnetic interference, onboard flight recorders and more. For special duty they have infrared and near infrared cameras available as options. Plus these drones can go where it is difficult or impossible to place a human observer.
The One to Watch
The company that has made this science fiction device a reality is Microdrones GmbH, the manufacturer of the drones in the British police trial.
Microdrones have been on the market since April 2006 and have been used in aerial photography, archeological and civil surveillance, plant inspections, fire and rescue, border control, law enforcement and military applications. Thus far their customer base has been primarily in Europe, but this is likely to change as the word gets out and the system proves itself. And it's certain that new applications will be found: security and surveillance, environmental protection, public works, construction monitoring, surveying and mapping, and exploration.
There can be little doubt of the value these spy drones represent. In search and rescue operations they can scout potentially hazardous locations without risk to human rescuers. For law enforcement, they can be used to track criminals without exposing the officer to potential danger. Mining site inspectors could send it up or down a shaft to check conditions. It really does not take much to envision how these little wonders can prove to be useful or evenvaluable. Once the appropriate agencies and companies become aware of what the Microdrone can do, it is only a matter of time before even more adventurous applications are imagined