Micro Air Vehicles could be huge (figuratively)

Published July 1st, 2018

In the not-so-distant future, large commercial UAVs may perform tasks ranging from package delivery to taxi service – but the other end of the spectrum looks just as promising. In 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture at Caltech famously titled: “there’s plenty of room at the bottom” – he was speaking about nanotechnology, but the general sentiment could also ring true in the world of UAVs.

MAVs, or Micro Aerial Vehicles, are exactly what they sound like: they’re tiny flying machines. It’s a bit of a misnomer, because they’re better measured in millimeters than micrometers – but we get the idea.

MAVs are perfectly suited for indoor environments: they’re quiet, lightweight and won’t poke an eye out. Indoor environments also simplify the placement of wireless changing stations, which will likely be needed because of the tiny batteries used by these flying machines. Being localized to indoor environments also makes MAVs well-suited as IoT peripherals.

Micro aerial vehicles have applications in both the consumer and business spaces. They could be part of home security systems, they could monitor air quality, noise pollution and more. MAVs could follow you around and help create a journal of your life. For retailers, they could help track inventory and customer behavior while reducing liability by spotting hazards like spills and puddles.

Aside from the obvious consumer applications, there’s also interest in MAVs from military and law enforcement. The idea of using tiny robots for surveillance isn’t science fiction anymore. Much of the current research is funded by military organizations like DARPA.

MAVs are significantly cheaper to manufacture than standard UAVs, they’re safer, and there’s already some impressively small examples in development today. The tiny machines can be separated into two broad categories: the ornithopters and the multicopters. Micro quadcopters can be purchased for under $50 (they’re essentially just toys), but with a footprint of less than a square inch, it’s hard not to marvel at them (it’s almost reminiscent of how some early cultures used wheels in toys before using them in wagons). Micro ornithopters are less well known, but they mimic the mechanics of bird and insect flight (this subsclass of ornithopters is called entomopters). The tiny form factor allows these machines to make use of tech such as electrostatic adhesion for perching and takeoff (think of a fly-on-the wall scenario). While less well-known, the bulk of advanced research seems to be in the area of micro ornithopters.

There’s another interesting avenue of research: creating cyborg insects. Insects have been masters of flight for hundreds of millions of years. There are already DIY kits available that allow you to turn a cockroach into an RC cyborg  – and scientists are already able to control the flight of a moth via implants . The smallest flying insects are orders of magnitude smaller than any practical MAV, so engineers can keep looking to them for design inspiration.

It’s easy to imagine a future where the sky is filled with UAVs, but it’s a bit harder to predict exactly how MAVs might change the landscape. MAVs have often been relegated to research projects, but the time for commercialization may be near.