The Pentagon is looking to develop drones modeled after living organisms like bats and insects. The Department of Defense’s DESI pilot program has made a call for proposals that will solve certain “defense challenges.” One of these challenges is the development of “highly maneuvrable drones.”
According to Defense One, the announcement states that the pilot program is focused on creating new forms of autonomous flight technology with advanced algorithms for flight control and decision-making ability. Their view is that drones inspired by animals like bats will improve this technology.
“The biological study of agile organisms such as bats and flying insects has yielded new insights into complex flight kinematics of systems with a large number of degrees of freedom, and the use of multi-functional flight surface materials,” the announcement reads.
The statement from the DOD adds that these studies of “agile organisms” and progress in other components of the technology could mean additional real-time autonomy in miniature robotic systems.
“As a result of these advances, there exists a possibility of creating autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have significant improvements in maneuverability, survivability and stealth over traditional quadcopter or fixed-wing designs.”
So, it’s clear that the eventual objective is to create an unmanned aerial vehicle that can operate with limited human input.
If you’ve been binge-watching Black Mirror Season 4, then the idea of autonomous drones inspired by animals should be familiar to you. The concept is explored in Episode 5, “Metalhead.” The episode is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where what’s left of the human race lives in hiding from “dogs,” land-based drones that relentlessly hunt their targets until they kill them. Even though they’re called dogs, their design and movement seem inspired by cockroaches.
One woman battles one of these drones until she “kills” it but before it dies, the “dog” releases a hail of tracker bullets which implant themselves into her face and neck. The trackers attract a horde of new drones to her location. When she realizes that she won’t be able to remove the trackers without risking serious bodily harm/death, she decides to take her own life.
But robots inspired by animals aren’t just a science fiction trope or a new tech innovation. As Defense One notes, in the 1960s a robotic arm inspired by natural biology was developed. There were even more advancements in the 1990s and the 2000s powered by researchers at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Berkeley. Asian researchers also made huge strides in this field during this time. In fact, China has had robotic fish for the past 10 years.
The first Department of Defense robot inspired by natural life was launched in 2006. It was called a Spinybot and was a multi-limbed robotic wall climber.
According to The Daily Mail, the DOD’s announcement about their push to develop bio-inspired drone follows news that DARPA wants to create robotic swarms that can support troops on land and in the air. These swarms will involve the cooperation of hundreds of drones. In another case of life imitating art, this sounds a lot like the robot bee technology featured in Black Mirror Season 3 pisode, “Hated In The Nation.”