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Technology: James Bond's hummingbird

February 18, 2011 | 11:40 am


If a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, what is a remote-controlled, video-camera-equipped hummingbird drone worth?

About $4 million.

The Times reported this week that a Monrovia company, AeroVironment Inc.,  has been working since 2006 to develop such a tiny winged warrior under a $4-million contract with the Pentagon.

The story says: "Equipped with a camera, the battery-powered drone can fly at speeds of up to 11 miles per hour, AeroVironment said. It can hover and fly sideways, backward and forward, as well as go clockwise and counterclockwise, by remote control for about eight minutes.

"Industry insiders see the technology eventually being capable of flying through open windows or sitting on power lines, capturing audio and video while enemies would be none the wiser."

No word on whether it will leave battery droppings on your windshield.

Now, I'm not saying the Pentagon overpaid for its bird. However, as a Christmas present for my sons a couple of years ago, I bought a tiny remote-controlled airplane at Hobby People in Pasadena. It flew for 10 minutes. It was on sale for $29.99.

Of course, it was made in China. And it wouldn't do to farm out defense work to China. Plus, they'd probably use toxic lead paint to decorate it. 

Actually, it's been a big month for machines doing stuff people, or other animals, used to do. Northrop Grumman Corp.'s bat-winged robotic jet, the X-47B, flew for the first time. It's not a spy bird, er, plane, though; its job is to blow stuff up. 

At least I think it's supposed to use bombs. Northrop Grumman made a music video of the maiden flight, complete with a rock-and-roll soundtrack, so maybe that's its secret weapon: Death by Blink 182. 

And, of course, in a more benign setting, IBM's "Watson" took home the loot on "Jeopardy!," proving that when it comes to useless information, there's nothing like a computer. 

But the fake hummingbird is my favorite. The company says it's just the first step. I don't know much about the technology (although once, I did manage to fly my son's remote-controlled airplane so high that I lost contact with it and we had to hike a mile in the Mojave Desert to retrieve it). However, I think adding a voice to the hummingbird would be a good step.

Picture it -- deep inside Area 51, our intrepid "spy bird" checks in with its controller:

"Tweety,  report!"

"Dis is Tweety. I tawt I taw a tewwowist!"

"Repeat, Tweety, you're breaking up …"

"Dis is Tweety. I did, I did see a tewwowist!"

Now that would be worth $4 million.


Will computers outpace human intelligence

-- Paul Whitefield 

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