AeroVironment win Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award

Nano Hummingbird

Imagine building a tiny hummingbird-sized surveillance aircraft.

Now imagine that this remote-controlled drone can not only hover or fly in any direction, but also go in and out of open doorways – all while capturing everything on digital video.

If you could build something like that you’d want to call … well, Popular Mechanics, right?

As it turns out, Popular Mechanics called AeroVironment Corp. In fact, the magazine selected the Pasadena-based company as a 2011 Breakthrough award winner for its Nano Hummingbird unmanned aircraft system.

Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Nano Hummingbird is currently in the demonstration phase. But the groundbreaking technology has caught the attention of plenty of potential customers.

The magazine’s award – presented Monday in New York – recognizes DARPA’s Todd Hylton and AeroVironment’s Matt Keennon and Karl Klingebiel for conceiving and creating this first-of-its kind unmanned air vehicle.

“They spent four-and-a- half years on their program,” AV Vice President Steven Gitlin said. “But that team had been working in this domain for a decade before that, so they were about as well equipped as anyone to do this.”

Even the most jaded observers are amazed when they see the remote-controlled drone in action, according to Gitlin.

“It’s truly remarkable to see what they have produced,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to get old. There’s a sense of wonder people get when they look at this device flying around.”

In its “11 Brilliant Innovators: Breakthrough Awards 2011” feature on the winners, Popular Mechanics notes that the AV team custom-built most of the aircraft by hand using machine tools, microscopes and an old-school Swiss watchmaker’s lathe.

They used those tools to fashion parts, including tiny flanged pulleys in the flapping-wing transmission. Equally impressive is the fact that the entire aircraft – including motors, battery, communication systems and video camera – weighs less than a AA battery.

Hylton, who oversaw the project for DARPA’s Nano Air Vehicle program, said the Nano Hummingbird would have been a perfect device to have on hand during last spring’s nuclear meltdown in Japan.

“It would have been great to have a small vehicle to fly into the reactors to see what was going on before sending in humans,” he told the magazine.

The Nano Hummingbird has a wingspan of just 6.5 inches. It’s larger and heavier than an average hummingbird, but smaller and lighter than the largest hummingbird currently found in nature, according to AV.

Gitlin said customers for the small drone will likely be government- related.

“What tends to happen with this kind of development is when you get to a place where you show what can be done, it often takes time for people to think about how they could deploy it and take advantage of its capabilities,” he said. “We’ve discussed this with many different potential customers.”