When Science Fiction Becomes Reality

E-mail Tom Kevan

Imagination has always been the only limitation to technological development. Every now and then, something appears on the horizon that gives us a glimpse of what the future holds.

For the past decade, miniaturization and integration have been the hallmarks of cutting-edge technology. Now nanotechnology and MEMS are driving the frontiers of research and development efforts, and we read of the design and construction of devices at the molecular level. For most of us, these are abstractions without real-world form and substance. But occasionally you read a news story that makes these concepts real.

A Real-World Example
This month, a press release announced that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.7-million, 10-month contract to design a remote-controlled nano air vehicle (NAV) that will collect military intelligence indoors and outdoors on the urban battlefield.

To accomplish this task, Lockheed has put together a team that taps the resources of private technology vendors and some of the nation's premier research facilities, including Sandia National Laboratories, AeroCraft, ATK Thiokol, and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Lockheed's own Advanced Technology Laboratories, Advanced Development Programs (Skunk Works), and Advanced Technology Center.

According to the specifications of the project, the NAV will be similar in size and shape to a maple tree seed. The one-bladed wing structure will house a chemical rocket, lift and pitch controls, telemetry, communications, and navigation systems, as well as imaging sensors and battery power. Measuring 1.5 inches long and weighing no more than 0.07 ounces, the air vehicle will be able to transport its sensor payload nearly a mile.

According to James Marsh, director of Lockheed's Advanced Technology Laboratories, designing and building a device of this scale will require revolutionary manufacturing technologies to integrate near-microscopic components into the airframe. "We know going in that we need some of the best minds in manufacturing technology and in the development and integration of highly sophisticated, software-driven control technologies and mission systems."

Then What?
Although the nano air vehicle is not a reality yet, it's a good bet that it will be within the next 10 years. Success of the project will mean much more than adding another weapon to the U.S. military's arsenal. It will mean the development of new materials, construction techniques, and sophisticated integration technologies that will revolutionize medicine, industrial automation, and remote monitoring of our environment. The ability to build complex systems on this scale will redefine the basic perspectives of everyday life.