Bumblebee-Sized Drones With Tiny Wings Developed to Surveil Suspected Terrorists

Based on two designs patented in 2014 and 2016, respectively, the U.S. military is developing a drone so tiny that it will be able to surveil suspected terrorists and their families from their own homes, Australian news site 9 News reports.

The drone is roughly the size of a bumblebee and sports a set of tiny, translucent wings that increase its "maneuverability," according to an Air Force Technology Transfer and Transition press release. Its form was inspired by the anatomy of insects and birds, the release said, and the drone is capable of swiveling its head to capture photos and videos.

"So, whether you are out bird watching or watching out for birds, keep in mind that bird may be out watching you!" the release concludes.

While drones have been around since World War II, they were not deployed in significant numbers until the U.S. entered the Vietnam War, according to Britain's Imperial War Museums. In the intervening decades, they have become a key element of modern warfare. Notable recent victims of drone strikes include high-ranking Iranian officer Qasem Soleimani, who was killed along with several others in Baghdad on January 3, 2020.

Formally known as micro air vehicles (MAVs), the mini-drone promises to increase the surveillance capabilities of the U.S. military by infiltrating spaces and structures that were previously not accessible, according to 9 News. Their small dimensions make them particularly innocuous. Unlike their bigger, heavier predecessors, they can fly through open doors, perch on neighborhood power lines and hover above battlefields without being noticed.

"Traditionally, the role of the Air Force has been very large aircraft," a spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), the institution that is developing the mini-drone in partnership with Los Angeles-based company Airion Health, told 9 News. "Lately, things have been getting a lot smaller, because you want to go sometimes to places that you can't get in with an F-16 [fighter jet]."

Perhaps the MAV's most impressive feature is six-degrees-of-freedom flight. One of the foremost challenges facing the aviation engineers tasked with building such devices, six-degrees-of-freedom flight refers to the ability to fly up and down, forward and back, and left and right, according to The Defense Post.

Under the terms of the AFRL's contract with Airion Health, the company will have to produce a "workable prototype" of the MAV within 15 months, according to the press release. By that time, Airion will be expected to have made demonstrable "progress toward meeting the revenue goals required later in the license," Joshua Laravie, the technology transfer specialist and domestic alliance program manager for the AFRL's Aerospace Systems Directorate, told Military.com.

"We were excited to license our technology to a small business that was building strategic relationships in the drone industry," Laravie said, according to the release. "[We] are looking forward to supporting their efforts to commercialize an AF technology."

Drones fly during a New Delhi ceremony.
The U.S. military is developing miniature drones that can infiltrate previously inaccessible structures and spaces. Above, drones in New Delhi demonstrate skills in honor of India's 73rd Army Day on January 15. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images