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Drone Engineers Draw Inspiration From Insects

Engineers in Brooklyn are doing… what engineers do… trying to make new versions of these machines that are faster, lighter, smaller, and smarter. And they’re drawing inspiration from insects. Adele Humbert looked into this new research to see how far the technology has come.


It’s a sunny day in Brooklyn: tiny maple seeds are falling from the trees, spinning through the air like small helicopters. And just a few steps away, the sound of invention…


At Aerobo, a tech startup, engineers are designing, building and testing new drones. This one is called the Phantom 4.


There are others, of course.

SALISBURY 2. The smallest drone we make is like bigger than a pigeon, smaller than a turkey. I would say like maybe a foot and a half in circumference and the biggest one you couldn’t fit your arms around it.

That’s Phil Salisbury, a mechanical engineer at Aerobo. So far, engineers have been mimicking birds’ movements.  

SALISBURY 3. You want to mimic the same things in a drone: how birds land, like their feet space apart in a certain way, the muscles and tendons react the shock when they land

But when drones get smaller, they won’t be copying birds anymore… They’ll be studying insects.

SALISBURY 4. Right now our drones are pretty big and loud so if you can make a drone as small as a dragonfly you can fly them anywhere and do all sorts of cool things.

Can you imagine people walking on the streets with their butterfly or bee robot flying around them? According to Ronald Fearing, a Professor in robotics at UC Berkeley, that’s the future.

FEARING 1. So if you have something insect-like like a butterfly, it might be a nice thing maybe to help you find lost keys or keep you from bumping into things

Two years ago, his team of engineers and biologists started to design mini flying robots inspired by all sorts of insects…He is currently working on cockroaches. He says they can adapt to every environment, and they’re pretty good at sensing things:

FEARING 2. They are very robust; they are great climbers, they are great runners. So they provide a nice model.

Some observers see a dark side to all this futuristic engineering. What Fearing describes Ssounds like a great model for soldiers. Inside the US Department of Defense, engineers are developing autonomous drones… small enough to fit through an open window. And you can see why… Insect sized drones would be so small that we’d hardly notice them. Which would allow them to access places human soldiers couldn’t.

Omar Dahbour is a Professor in ethics of war at Hunter college. He says insect drones would exacerbate the trend of targeted assassinations:

DAHBOUR 1. In this case I suppose if you can target individuals more specifically you can eliminate what’s called collateral damage that is killing people you don’t intend to kill.

He says new technologies constantly challenge the ethics of war because they create new problems. What if humans lose control of their swarm of drones?

DAHBOUR 2. Out of control drones randomly killing people around the world… that doesn’t sound like a very good scenario (LAUGH) but I think that could be the kind of problems with these technologies.


Back in Brooklyn, we’re still far away from the nightmarish future Dahbour describes… And Phil Salisbury, for one, is aware of the dangers.

SALISBURY 5. It’s a terrible idea to be like ‘Yeah I think it will fly, let’s try it out on the sidewalk!’ you know! That would ends pretty fast, I think

And Salisbury’s colleague Surash Kamar says that flying devices are not as precise as insects… yet.

KAMAR 1. So in terms of like those natural moves and like moving fast, very fast, very quickly, changing directions very quickly, that’s still a faraway dream…


But dreams have to start somewhere…. So for now, in Brooklyn, it’s up, up, and away!

Adele Humbert, Columbia Radio News (03:44)


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