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The Army's $10M Spy Bat Still Too Big 199

Lucas123 writes "The University of Michigan's Center for Objective Microelectronics and Biomimetic Advanced Technology (COM-BAT) is working on building a robot bat that would perform long-range reconnaissance for the U.S. Army, but U.Mich is currently struggling with miniaturizing components in order to make the bat small enough to be stealthy. 'The focus is to shrink down many electronics that while currently available would only be good if the US Army wanted, say, a 12-foot spy-bat.' Some components need to be 1,000 times smaller than they currently are. The Army's $10 million grant proposal calls for the bat to be six inches in length, weigh four ounces and use just one watt of power. The bat is supposed to be powered by a lithium-ion battery, charged by solar and wind energy, as well as simple vibrations."
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The Army's $10M Spy Bat Still Too Big

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  • Magic Charge (Score:3, Insightful)

    by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) <> on Tuesday March 18, 2008 @12:47PM (#22784596) Homepage Journal

    The bat is supposed to be powered by a lithium-ion battery, charged by solar and wind energy, as well as simple vibrations.

    Why don't they just ask for Zero Point Energy while they're at it? The "bat" is going to be working against the wind, generating vibrations, and (presumably) flying at night. Which makes all those charge methods about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. Why don't they ask for something that follows the KISS principle and just pull the battery pack to charge it?
  • But seriously, why go with an ornithopter design?

    Stealth. It needs to act (at least somewhat) like a real bat or it will be detected. Real bats are ornithopters. Ergo, the spy craft must be an ornithopter.
  • Pigeons next (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheMeuge ( 645043 ) on Tuesday March 18, 2008 @12:51PM (#22784660)
    The idea of a bat-like creature is probably a concern because fixed wing designs will attract more attention.

    Basically, they want something that'll look like a bird, fly like a bird, and would be able to engage in surveillance without anyone noticing. The next logical step would be to make a pigeon-like creature, that would be unnoticeable in an urban environment. A few thousand of those in a large city could make enforcing "free speech zones" much easier.
  • by ramk13 ( 570633 ) on Tuesday March 18, 2008 @12:57PM (#22784748)
    Wouldn't having it be powered by vibrations make flight stability that much harder? Most of those devices have a mass that is free to move along one axis which has oscillatory motion. Seems like a device like that would dampen wing beats and other motions that would be important for flight.
  • Re:Pigeons next (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheMeuge ( 645043 ) on Tuesday March 18, 2008 @01:02PM (#22784818)
    I find fault with your logic, because you're assuming that one's beliefs and principles override one's requirement to work in order to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their families.
  • by pandrijeczko ( 588093 ) on Tuesday March 18, 2008 @01:04PM (#22784840)
    This "BAT" research is a good thing.

    So is the cure for cancer. And given the choice, I know where I'd want my taxes to be spent.

  • by mckinnsb ( 984522 ) on Tuesday March 18, 2008 @01:19PM (#22785016)

    The additional benefit of a bat-like design (as opposed to a pigeon) is that they are nocturnal - so a spy-bat flying around at night would be more difficult to discern from a real bat as opposed to a spy-pigeon from a real pigeon. Bats are also nearly ubiquitous in the earth's ecology, making them ideal for spying anywhere.

    Another plus involves the behavior of a bat. A bat sitting still in a tree or a cave wouldn't be considered "abnormal" by a casual observer- and most people are honestly too afraid of them to go up to it and examine it closely. Especially if its hidden amongst a group of "real bats", which would only add to the camouflage aspect.

    A perfect night spy. Of course, why not just install a bio-tech camera in a real bat? I'm sure we might see that someday.

  • by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Tuesday March 18, 2008 @01:33PM (#22785194)

    So is the cure for cancer. And given the choice, I know where I'd want my taxes to be spent.

    You present a false dichotomy.

    I'm generally in favor of reduced defense spending, but research into new capabilities is something I think is worthwhile. I wholeheartedly agree that a cure for cancer would be better than this, but we don't have that choice available. Even if we did, it's likely that a few $M taken from a robotic bat project wouldn't even be close to enough.

    We can spend money on both. Whether spending tax money on this is a good idea is mostly unrelated to whether spending tax money on medical research is a good idea. Obviously the two are connected through tax rates and thus the total government funding available, but as long as the projects are small relative to the total fund, they should each be evaluated against the alternative of reducing taxes (or increasing them, depending on your preferred viewpoint), rather than against each other.

    We're all (well, mostly) smart people here, capable of evaluating complex choices. Let's at least look at the correct set of choices, rather than a rhetoric-filled politically motivated set of options that don't actually exist.

  • Re:Magic Charge (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Bobb9000 ( 796960 ) on Tuesday March 18, 2008 @03:11PM (#22786560)

    we don't have UAVs that can land and takeoff unattended inside enemy territory
    This isn't a technological issue. We have plenty of designs capable of taking off and landing autonomously wherever it's needed; I don't know whether any are currently deployed, but there's no reason we couldn't.

    Yet the military thinks that this magical ornithopter is going to manage takeoff and landing unattended? (Which is significantly complicated by its wing design.)
    While this is complicated by its wing design compared to a helicopter, it's actually easier compared to a fixed-wing drone. You don't need an extended runway; hell, those little WowWee dragonfly RC toys can take off from ground in about five feet.

    On top of that, the military really expects that these things will lay out in the open (where they can get sunlight) and go completely undetected?
    On rooftops, in trees, in forested clearings or desert away from people - yes, I think it could find places out of the way to sit and recharge during the day.

    You're right that those specs aren't possible with current technology, but I suspect that's why they're giving the University of Michigan $10 million to try to improve the current technology.
  • Re:Pigeons next (Score:2, Insightful)

    by SleptThroughClass ( 1127287 ) on Tuesday March 18, 2008 @04:03PM (#22787240) Journal
    It doesn't say they are having problems shrinking the components. Looks like the goal of this research is to perform the shrinking. So they're probably going to design some such tiny circuits and reprogram some existing small computers. We'll see. Or actually, if they're successful, maybe we won't see.

Money can't buy love, but it improves your bargaining position. -- Christopher Marlowe