Tiny Spies to Take Over the Skies

Four-and-a-half inch aircraft are providing a bird's-eye view of Iraq.

By Anne Casselman|Thursday, June 12, 2008

Big, unmanned spy planes, like the Predators flying over Iraq, have plenty of problems. For starters, they are expensive to build and operate. More important, some can be relatively easy to spot. Shrinking such planes so that they weigh less than two ounces would result in the perfect vehicle to get a bird’s-eye view of the terrain.

Of course, flying a craft as small as 41/2 inches wide comes with its own difficulties—the smaller the flyer, the more unstable and less energy efficient it becomes. To smooth the flight of such small planes, Peter Ifju, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida, created a flexible wing (built onto the prototype plane at right) that can keep a steady course in the face of gusty winds. Inspired by the wings of bats, Ifju built a carbon fiber skeleton covered with a latex membrane that pacifies gusts by acting as a shock absorber.

The craft remains steady even on a windy day. The downside is a flight time of just 15 minutes before the battery must be recharged.

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