AeroVironment showed off their latest UAV, the tiny Nano Hummingbird (Fig. 1). This was developed as part of the DARPA Nano Air Vehicle Program (NAV). DARPA is the same organization that sponsored the DARPA Grand Challenge (see From Mpg To DARPA Challenge: Electronics Winning The Race) and Urban Challenge (see DARPA Chooses Urban Challenge Semifinalists).

I spoke with Matt Keennon (Fig. 2) about the Nano Hummingbird. Matt joined AeroVironment in 1996 and has lead several talented teams of engineers over the years on a variety of micro aircraft projects including: The Black Widow (Fig. 3), the first Micro Air Vehicle prototype reconnasance system to show real practical useful operation; the Microbat (first remotely piloted, micro sized electic powered, flapping wing aircraft with measurable endurance); the Hornet (first small UAV to fly powered only from a hydrogen fuel cell); the Wasp UAV, and most recently the Nano Hummingbird project.

Also check out some of AeroVironment's other UAV videos on Engineering TV

Wong: How did the Nano Hummingbird come about?

Keennon: The Nano Hummingbird is the culmination of over 4 years work on DARPA Nano Air Vehicle Program, which is a program that was setup in 2006 to develop and investigate possible new and novel ways to build very small unmanned vehicles which could do useful missions, primarily for U.S. government applications. The hummingbird design came out as a natural evolution of the flapping wing design that AeroVironment initially started with.

Wong: What are the flight characteristics of the Nano Hummingbird?

Keennon: It can fly from stationary hover, up to 11 mph in fast forward flight, and every speed inbetween. It can independently fly forwards, backwards, sideways, rotate on it's axis, and fly straight up and down.

Wong: What kind of applications might the Nano Hummingbird have?

Keennon: The primary applications would be for surveillance and reconnasance for U.S. military organizations.

Wong: What are the video camera characteristics?

Keennon: The aircraft has a single, color, daylight video camera capable of full frame video, for the entire duration of the flight.

Wong: What kind of motors drive the Nano Hummingbird?

Keennon: The details of the motors are not something we can discuss, but you are welcome to look at our patent application, which is publicly available, and it does show/discuss motors.

Wong: Does the on-board processor handle stability and other flight characteristics?

Keennon: This is significant, unlike other research aircraft, our aircraft is entirely self-contained, with all control and stability systems on-board, there are no external influences other than the pilot giving occasional commands to move forward, turn etc..

Wong: Can the Nano Hummingbird operate in an autonomous mode?

Keennon: Not specifically, one reason is that it does not have collision avoidance systems, but in an open environment with zero wind, it can fly by itself, and maintain height, and keep itself upright and in a hover flight condition, without any external intervention/signals.

Wong: How does the Nano Hummingbird compare to a real hummingbird?

Keennon: It does not currently have the extreme manueverability of a real hummingbird, and because it is somewhat larger and considerably heavier than a typical hummingbird, most people comment that it is louder than a typical real hummingbird. But it can perform all the basic manuevers that a real hummingbird can perform which 'defines' what a hummingbird is, and those manuevers are continuous, long term hover in one place, as well as unusual flight directions, including pure sideways flight, and backwards flight.

Wong: How long can it fly?

Keennon: The endurance varies depending on how the aircraft is outfitted. The final Nano Hummingbird airframe flew for a duration of 11 minutes for it's longest flight, but with the body and video camera, it has a shorter endurance closer to 5 minutes.

Wong: What is next for the Nano Hummingbird?

Keennon: Now that we have proven the basic concepts of hummingbird-like flapping wing flight, the next steps are to refine the control system, developing the autonomous flight capabilities, possibly outdoors and indoors, as well as improving the video payload system performance.

Wong: Also check out these links and videos including all the videos from last year's AUVSI 2010 show.