Enabling New Missions for Robotic Aircraft

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Science  18 Dec 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5960, pp. 1642-1644
DOI: 10.1126/science.1182497

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Can we engineer an artificial “homing pigeon”—that is, create a small aircraft that can perform a task for us, pilot itself, and travel for a long time over great distances? Uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs), which have been developed mainly for military applications, are still remotely controlled, and some tasks, such as flying in crowded environments, are too difficult, dangerous, or expensive to be performed by even the smallest of these aircraft (1). These problems have spurred the development of smaller robotic air vehicles. Specifically, micro air vehicles (MAVs) are inexpensive, fly autonomously, and are small and lightweight (with wingspans of 15 cm or total mass of 0.5 kg) (2). We focus on the two technical challenges that must be met by MAVs if they are to fly as well as birds, namely perception—sensing and responding to their environment—and persistence—staying airborne.