No matter how progressive humanity gets in technology and innovation, we will always go back to the basics every time we need to learn the best way to do and design things. For instance, insects, birds, and even fishes under the sea were observed during the design and creation of planes, submarines, and drones, among all others. The same thing applies to unmanned vehicles, and here are some of those innovative and impressive results of observing and copying mother nature. What’s more tried and tested than the body shape and movement of creatures that have been honed over millions and millions of years of adaptation and evolution?

AeroVironment Nano Hummingbird UAS

The Nano Hummingbird UAS was a first-of-its-kind innovation designed and developed by AeroVironment’s MacCready Works Advanced Solutions team. Inspired by, you guessed it, the hummingbird, this micro air vehicle with tri-axis control was the very first flapping-wing, nano unmanned air vehicle. The UAV can hover and fly sideways, backward, and forward, as well as rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise, all via remote control and a video camera payload, just like how hummingbirds can fly.

The Nano Hummingbird surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft developed by AeroVironment, Inc. under contract with the United States Government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (DARPA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The hummingbird-like aircraft was developed as part of the Nano-Air Vehicle program led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Not only did they make it behave like a hummingbird, but they also made it look like one. The 19 g flying prototype can fly at around 11 miles per hour and has a wingspan of 6.3 inches, all powered by batteries, motors, and communications systems. DARPA contributed some $4 million to the AeroVironment beginning in 2006 to create this prototype.

You might be asking, “What for?” The hummingbird would be perfect for reconnaissance and surveillance, especially in urban mission operations. It could perch on power lines or windowsills. It could also enter buildings and relay the views back to its operator, you know, like a spy bird.

Guardian S

Who would’ve thought that we could also explore the possibility of using the movement of snakes and apply it in an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV)? That’s exactly what Sarcos did with Guardian S, a system that mimics a snake’s efficient way of moving over terrain and enabling it to pass over difficult terrain, passing through narrow pipes, climbing stairs, and all those hard to reach places.

Guardian S was created as a remote visual inspection tool that enables users to meet their “operations and maintenance targets more reliably, productively, safely, and cost-effectively.”

It can be used to scale the inside and outside of storage tanks, pipes, vessels, vehicles, and other vertical places. It can also be used to access tight spaces as tight as five inches. Guardian S won’t have any problems transversing on mud, gravel, unstructured terrain, and even water.

The 16 pounds robot is easy to carry and can feed live video, voice, and data communications while exploring risky areas, be it below or above ground, so the operator wouldn’t have to do it. It also has customizable sensor packages that include accelerometer, gas, infrared, sound, EOD, and HAZMAT. It is also dustproof and water protected. The snake robot is powered by a 147-Wh 14.4-V lithium-ion battery, good enough to keep it alive for 12 hours of surveillance time or a 3-mile travel range. Pretty cool, right?

Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV)

If the systems being made up above are small, it’s an opposite world down below, as things are better when they’re bigger under the sea. With that, Lockheed Martin won a contract for the design phase of the Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV) program of the US Navy.

The result was a long-range autonomous Orca undersea vehicle (UUV) that could carry out missions like ISR, mine countermeasures, indication and warning notification, and anti-submarine warfare training. The Orca can travel far distances while carrying multiple mission payloads simultaneously, thanks to its large size and reconfigurable payload bay.

In May 2019, Boeing was selected for a contract modification to deliver five Orca robot subs and support equipment. As a Boeing spokesperson said,

The vehicle has more than 2,500 hours of ocean testing. Echo Voyager completed its first phase of sea testing – or Alpha sea trials – in 2017 when it operated off the coast of southern California for about three months to undergo system evaluations and testing.

The US Navy awarded a contract modification for the delivery of five Boeing Orca XLUUV and associated support elements. Credit: Boeing.

Existing UUVs can’t receive commands while underwater. That’s why they made developments to enable the system to make rule-based decisions in times of trouble so it could complete its mission and return to base without any assistance from a human operator ashore.