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Engineering News | Challenges of Nano Air Vehicles

December 17th, 2012

In Feb. 2011, AeroVironment released its “nano-hummingbird” prototype. The miniature drone flew with a controlled precision hovering motion, much like the two-wings of a hummingbird.

The hummingbird motion was not the greatest achievement of the drone. It went beyond that. The Nano allowed for the aircraft to carry its own renewable energy source, created through the continued propulsion of the bird-like wings and structure.

The prototype was so successful that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contracted AeroVironment to create a drone aircraft for the Nano Air Vehicle program (NAV). According to DARPA, NAV’s are “airborne vehicles no larger than 7.5 cm in length, width, or height, capable of performing a useful military mission at an affordable cost, and gross takeoff weight (GTOW) of less than or equal to 10 grams.”

AeroVironment’s current prototype measures 16 cm and weighs 19 g. It can fly all direction, forward and backward while rotating clockwise and counter-clockwise.

The challenge to build a smaller, better, faster, more efficient drone was born.

Most NAVs are used by the military for defense purposes. Video cameras and sensors can be attached for surveillance, targeting, artillery spotting, mine detection, damage assessment and jamming enemy communications. AeroVironment not only has to make the drone work on a smaller scale, but also continue research on propulsion and energy storage, better aerodynamics, communications systems and manufacturing techniques for greater military use.


  • NAV propulsion and energy storage systems require a highly efficient power source to be able to fly for long periods of time. Creating a drone powerful enough, yet light enough to meet the requirements is a serious engineering design issue.
  • The size of the NAV makes for aerodynamic challenges. The NAV looks to copy the flight aerodynamics of a bird or insect, which is greatly different from a typical aircraft.
  • In order to integrate navigation, guidance and control sensors a single chip must be created on a nanoscale to meet the restrictive weight requirements of the NAV design. If NAVs are traveling in groups, that also brings about a sensory communication issue.
  • Manufacturing these delicate and complex structures requires not only high tech engineering and design, but applicable manufacturing technology as well.

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