This is a watchbird watching you … everywhere

Some of our older readers may remember Munro Leaf’s Watchbird cartoons from back in the 50s. Our sci-fi junkies readers will recall a short story of the same name by Robert Sheckley, and what happens when things get out of hand.

We’ve seen the Predator and other ULV drones and various other Spy Eye in the Sky devices. Here’s another one that’s coming down the track. This one looks like a bird, it’s no bigger than a bird, and it nearly flies like a bird. Pretty cool, but harken back to Sheckley’s tale ... do you really want flocks of these things flitting around? image

The technology behind this thing is great. Instead of making a little RC airplane shaped like a bird these researchers are trying to make it actually fly like a bird. That understanding, and the desire for that kind of natural flight, goes back further than DaVinci, further than Daedalus & Icarus. But unfortunately “Whatever Man Invents the Devil Steals”. So it gets a spy camera and immediately the local police want in on it. It’s bad enough in the UK or in cities in the US where they’ve got surveillance cameras everwhere. But cameras that can follow you around? Not cool. While the technology behind the Watchbird isn’t 100% yet, and it is probably quite range limited, I think a line has been crossed, or a Rubicon, or some other idiom that says “too far”.

Robotic Bird Makes First Flight

A micro-aircraft with feathered, morphing wings showed off its stuff yesterday when the bird-like craft lifted off for its first flight. And its landing was just as dramatic: The RoboSwift crashed into a tree.

The craft weighs less than three ounces (80 grams) and spans just 20 inches (51 centimeters) from wingtip to wingtip. Its small size and onboard cameras make RoboSwift a possible soaring spy: The craft could make scientific observations of wild birds without disturbing them or hover above crowds of people or vehicles for government and law enforcement surveillance purposes. In fact, the Dutch National Police Services Agency said it will financially support the craft’s development.

Lentink and aerospace engineering students from Delft University of Technology in cooperation with Wageningen University designed the craft after the common swift, which can fly the equivalent of five roundtrips to the moon and remain airborne continuously for 4,350 miles (7,000 kilometers). Last year, Lentink and his colleagues discovered the common swift morphs its wings depending on flight conditions. The shape-shifting is what gives the bird its expert maneuverability and efficiency.

Like the bird, RoboSwift sports feathers, though just four on each wing. By folding these feathers over one another and sweeping them back and forth, the mini-craft morphs its wing shape and the surface area exposed to the elements in order to reduce drag. The feathery adjustments make RoboSwift a more efficient and agile flyer compared with fixed-wing craft.

“The new vehicle can really morph like a bird does. It uses actual feathers,” Lentink said.

And during its demo, the robotic swift tested out its avian disguise with the real thing. “During the demonstration, there were a couple of gulls that flew toward [RoboSwift] to inspect it,” Lentink told LiveScience.

In the future, the craft will get lessons in bird-flying behaviors such as gliding. When gliding, the motor will be turned off and the propeller will fold up so the aircraft can fly even more quietly and save energy.

Next week, the students who developed RoboSwift will take part in an international contest in India for micro-aircraft called the American-Asian Micro Air Vehicle Competition.

The RoboSwift, built by researchers at the Delft University of Technology, is among the first flying machines with a “morphing” wing sweep. As you’ll see in the video below, its wings reduce in surface area when pulled back to limit drag, the way the wings of actual fast-flying swifts do. Unlike the real birds, however, the RoboSwift is designed to spy on you.

Inside its small body (20” wingspan), there’s a low-resolution wireless camera. imageThe idea, already thought to be a good one by Dutch police, is that RoboSwift can be used to surreptitiously hover over crime scenes or football riots. People below, if they did look up, would only to see a soaring, swooping bird of no consequence.

The dudes from Delft are so proud of their little 3-oz. beast, they reckon they can even use it to observe other birds without being noticed—they just have to find a way to fold up that propeller once RoboSwift is aloft. Stashing that long-ass antenna on the end of the tail might help too.

In the video below you can see it soar, spy—and crash into a tree—like a true master of espionage.

Posted by Drew458    United States   on 03/06/2008 at 04:59 PM   
  1. 10 years it will be bumblebee size w/high-rez cameras w/audio and directional microphones!!

    Posted by Rancino    United States   03/06/2008  at  08:00 PM  
  2. Cute achievement.

    Is it still paranoia when they really are out to get you?

    Posted by Dr. Jeff    United States   03/06/2008  at  09:03 PM  
  3. And of course, just as in Virginia it’s legal for the police to use radar but illegal to own a radar detector, there will be laws saying the government can spy on you, but you can’t spy on them or own/use any countermeasures.

    Ah, freedom…

    blank stare

    Posted by GrumpyOldFart    United States   03/06/2008  at  09:04 PM  
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