ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 1 March 2000



Rudall, B.H. (2000), "Innovations", Kybernetes, Vol. 29 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited


Keywords: Automation, Cybernetics, Research, Technological developments

Abstracts: Reports and surveys are given of selected current research and development in systems and cybernetics. They include: Interdisciplinary research, Innovations, Formal methods for safety-critical systems, Biocybernetics, Internet access for all, Management cybernetics, Cybernetics and automation, Shrinking the robot.


1. Microscopic aircraft

A report in Jane's International Defence Review (November 1999) outlines the development of a new breed of microscopic aircraft that would, for example, be able to house cameras that will be not much bigger than insects.

Apart from many commercial applications many defence agencies would be glad to develop such devices at a time when it seems that it is still necessary to find out what is happening in other countries. Indeed the application of such innovative airplanes to war, where they could, for example, reconnoitre enemy positions, would be particularly well received by the military.

The report says that a very large number of micro air vehicles (MAVs) are being developed worldwide, and particularly in the USA. MAVs are small enough to be held in the hand with many being only six inches long. Further research is in hand to make them capable of travelling long distances, perhaps with some form of rocket propellant. The research appears to envisage such devices holding these insect-sized cameras and taking pictures of ground targets from about 300 feet.

One such development, still at an experimental stage, is taking place at the US Naval Research Laboratory. The prototype, it is reported, has electric motors on each wingtip to drive folding propellers. Its use, we are told, will be part of the development of such MAVs for jamming radar systems. The Naval Research Laboratory has a tactical electronic warfare division and this unit is interested in designing a MAV with enough power for flights of up to 30 minutes. The device would be powered by a "pencil-shaped motor" that would weigh no more than six grams. A speed of 30 feet a second, researchers believe, could be achieved.

The MAV would be a mini-robot device that would greatly contribute to the research programme initiated in the 1990s. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) started a four-year MAV programme that cost some $35 million (about £23 million) in 1997. The hand-sized planes the programme set out to design and build were not to be more than six inches long, and the aim was to encourage the development of the appropriate technology as far as possible. The report from Jane's International Defence Review highlights some of the roles such developed MAVs could carry out. These include:

  • Because of their light weight, low cost, and inherently stealthy operations in terms of noise, radar and visual signatures they have the capability of carrying out unconventional missions.

  • They could be used to detect and identify biological or chemical agents.

  • Used as a radar-jammer, they could fly close enough to the target to be effective.

  • Suggested role of providing a downed pilot with reconnaissance information or to transmit a signal for search and rescue forces.

The report also suggests the cost of such prototypes would be about $50,000 each (some £33,000), but of course, in production, this could drop to around $5,000 or even $1,000.

Cyberneticians will appreciate the big challenge that the design of such innovative devices presents. The aerodynamics is a main one, since because of their small size and low speed they will be operating in an environment that is familiar to small birds and large insects. Following this, research methods have to be found to launch MAVs and many encouraging ideas are being investigated. These include placing them on the back of air-launched guided missiles, or even releasing them from unmanned air vehicles.

In parallel to this research an insect-size camera is being developed to be carried on the MAVs. One specification is that the camera is to weigh less than one gram and have an aperture of some 2.6mm and be capable of receiving clear images from around a height of 300 feet.

The ultimate device could well take the form of a microscopic robot plane driven by minuscule computers to control its flight and actions.

Tiny helicopter developed in China. The USA, however, does not necessarily have the lead in this research. A report from the People's Republic of China describes the development of what is called "the world's smallest helicopter". At the Jiatong University, Shanghai researchers have developed a small spy helicopter which is less than 3/4 inch long and has the capacity of landing on an area about 1/4 inch square.

Like the US researchers, the Chinese developers are also interested in equipping the device with a camera. As to its uses, it too would be used for surveillance activities. The Chinese engineers boast that they are ahead of their US counterparts, since they claim their small helicopter could gain entrance to a restricted area through a "crack in the wall". This helicopter device is said to cost several thousands of pounds and is being developed for industrial surveillance as well as possible military use.

In the technical specifications produced and quoted by Jane's Defence Weekly, the engines are described as having six gears that allow the craft to land gently. The report says that at maximium power the engines turn at 25,000rpm. There is still a great deal of work to be carried out on the small craft and currently the problem of steering it is the main obstacle.

Future development. Whether hand-held or insect-size there is no doubt that a great deal of effort is being made by researchers worldwide to perfect them. The reasons for carrying out the programmes of research are obviously based on potential applications involving defence and industrial surveillance applications.

Even so, there will undoubtedly be a "spin-off" and many of the problems faced by the researchers are aerodynamic in origin. The production of "insect-size" cameras is also a line of research in its own right. The control of what will become "robot-like" devices will also tax researchers in the automated guidance and control fields. Many disciplines will need to interreact with one another and science, particularly systems and cybernetics, will benefit from these endeavours.

2. Computer to recognise insect sounds.

A report from the University of Hull (UK) describes research that has the potential of recognising the sounds made by insects and consequently of saving crops.

The "bugging" system will enable gardeners, for example, to listen to insects and farmers to control insects that may be harmful to their crops.

The research team at Hull say they have developed a technique to feed the sounds made by bugs into a computer and convert them into a form that is recognisable as a speech pattern. They believe that their new computerised system is sensitive enough to detect an insect landing on a leaf. A researcher at the university said that:

...while some insects just make a noise others communicate with each other. At the moment we are doing some work on whitefly which communicate by singing. We cannot normally hear it because the sound is sent along a leaf. But our sensors can pick it up.

Research is also being carried out on grasshoppers and crickets.

Computers have, of course, been used to recognise sounds and to be the centre of sophisticated speech recognition systems. In this research a computer system is used that recognises sounds by using speech recognition software. This converts the sounds into digital signals and the system, it is claimed, has the capacity to recognise and distinguish between 25 different species.

Potential applications are wide-ranging and many important applications are currently being investigated. One such application involves the immediate recognition as to whether an insect will be harmful to crops. The computer system does this by sound analysis of the insect noises and generates a warning if the software program believes that they do pose a threat. Another project that has been investigated is the development of an automated listening post that can be easily assembled, with the computer system housed in a portable box. The Hull University researchers say that a large number of companies and organisations have expressed interest in this innovative project.

Contact: Dr David Chesmore, School of Engineering, University of Hull, UK.

3. Smart patches to release nutrients

An innovative approach to feeding nutrients to humans or animals has been developed with military applications in mind. A report from the US Army Soldier Systems Center, Massachusetts describes the use of what are called smart patches, which are able to monitor the blood, heart rate, and body temperature and be programmed to release key nutrients.

The current main interest of the Center is, of course, to develop a system that is capable of giving soldiers food through skin patches. The scientists say that the menu for the food injection would be triggered by "satellites rather than cooks". One result, they say, would be the end of soldiers' meal breaks during battles. The US report says that:

The patches would stick on to the skin like small nicotine or anti-sea-sickness patches. They would be loaded with a whole range of specially chosen nutrients, including vitamins, essential minerals and salts, co-enzymes, catalysts and dietary supplements.

The researchers envisage that the soldiers would put on the "transdermal nutrient-delivery-system patches" when they went into combat. In addition, they would also wear a small watch-sized monitor that would check their physiological condition. The monitor would be linked, we are told, to the nailbed of a finger, and it would keep a constant but non-invasive check on the blood. It would also measure stress, adrenaline and other hormone levels, nutrients, body temperature, heartbeat and a dozen other variables. The system would work, the researchers report, by:

... body changes detected by the monitor triggering the release of appropriate nutrients, supplements and other chemicals from the stick-on patch. These compounds could also be released remotely using microwave signals from satellites. Soldiers, could then, for example, be prepared in advance for a "big push" by the release of an appropriate mix of supplements.

Further research at the US Center will allow the use of monitors to be used to check a soldier's calorie intake, body temperature and heart rate while on the battlefield or in any other challenging environment.