Flapping its mechanical wings, a hummingbird-like "ornithopter" built by Brigham Young University students is at once an engineering feat and a sign of things to come in unmanned surveillance technology.
The tiny flying wonder (click for video), along with other fix-winged micro air vehicles less than 6 inches wide, took to the skies near Saratoga Springs on May 20 as part of the 10th Annual Micro Air Vehicles Competition.
For senior Erin Reed, designing tiny, radio-controlled aircraft is not only an engineering challenge, but also a way to impress friends and family.
"My plane fits inside my hand. When I tell people it's that small, they are blown away," said Reed. "They ask me, 'How does it get in the air?' Amazingly, it does."
Jerry Bowman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and faculty adviser to the BYU team, said the competition gives students a chance to showcase their ingenuity.
"Working within set guidelines, students take engineering principles they've learned in class, come up with innovative designs and turn their ideas into working models," said Bowman. "The chance to take the project from start to finish really adds to their educational experience. Plus, it's a lot of fun."
Miniature planes have many potential applications. For example, police could use them to track fleeing criminals, journalists could enter difficult-to-access areas for live footage, or search-and-rescue teams could pilot a plane into a tight spot to better assess emergency situations.
"Video capability is really only the surface," said Bowman. "Attach a microphone or a chemical sensor to the plane and you can collect many other types of information."
The competition, which is sponsored by NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory, among others, consisted of four events – a surveillance test to see which planes can successfully transmit video from the air to home base, an endurance test to see which plane can go the longest distance and a design competition in the form of a written report.
The fourth event was a test to see which team could build and fly the smallest radio-controlled ornithopter. A point system determined the overall winner.
The ornithopter category is something that's been added to the competition since it was last held in Utah in 2002. At that event, BYU's team took first place overall.
Ornithopters fly by flapping mechanical wings in imitation of birds and insects. The machines are of particular interest to those looking for better surveillance technology.
"Fix-winged MAVs are extremely useful in gathering information, but they are limited in their maneuverability," said Bowman. "Theoretically speaking, ornithopters can stop and hover like a dragonfly, making them much more versatile."
Building a really good ornithopter is about as hard as it sounds, said senior Mike French of Beaverton, Ore.
"With a conventional airplane, the propeller provides the thrust, and the wings provide the lift, but with an ornithopter, the wings provide both the thrust and the lift," said French. "This makes it harder to design and build an ornithopter because you can't modify the two components needed for flight in isolation. Any little change you make to an ornithopter affects both components." (Click here for an explanation of how airplanes work.)
To build the ornithopter and other MAVs, students combine aerodynamic theory, wind tunnel testing, craftsmanship and flight testing, said Bowman.
"Because the planes are so small, students must understand aircraft performance and design very well in order to eventually wind up with planes that fly," he said.
Despite its diminutive nature, a MAV can come with a substantial price tag. It can cost up to $1,500 to build, said Bowman, a price limit set by competition rules. Most of the expense comes from the tiny video camera that transmits images to a receiver on the ground. The camera also helps the pilot navigate the skies.
"When the airplane gets out of sight - which happens pretty quickly - we have to fly it using the live video screen," said Bowman.
The MAVs at the competition were made of various materials, including plastic, carbon, fiberglass, balsa wood and foam. Most of them were also incredibly small and light. BYU's team, for instance, flew a MAV that weighed about the same as a penny.
"It's pretty impressive for a radio-controlled airplane to be that light," said Bowman.
Designs of the micro machines varied across teams and events. BYU members introduced a new MAV they called a "powered parafoil." A parafoil is a type of parachute that inflates to form a wing.
Eight teams competed in this year's competition, including one from Konkuk University in Seoul, Korea. Sponsors provided $4,000 in prize money.
Smack talk is scarce among the BYU engineering students. The competition tends to be rather friendly, they say.
"We've work really hard," said Reed, from Charlotte, N.C., "We want to show the rest of the teams that BYU students have what it takes, that we're a place with a lot of ingenuity and innovation."
Josh Darrow, a senior from Rochester, N.Y., who worked on the team's powered parafoil, (kindly) agrees.
Other colleges that competed included the University of Utah, the University of Florida, the University of Arizona, the Rochester Institute of Technology and Lehigh University.
Additional sponsors included AeroVironment, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, BYU's Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology and The Dow Chemical Company.
In June 2002, BYU hosted the 6th Annual MAV competition, taking first place overall. Read more about the win here. BYU also excels at creating novel unmanned air vehicle technology that autonomously directs tiny planes from a handheld or laptop computer.