Today we begin a new series: 60 Days of Drones. For the next two months, we’ll try to cover the full gamut of drones used by the U.S. government—letting you know what you should about the unmanned aircraft patrolling the skies on behalf of the United States. In the end, we’ll have a full card deck of the drones of today and the future. Stay tuned.

The sexiest of all military drones are the nanos. They’re also, possibly, the most hyped.

Sometimes called “micros,” they’ve been the subject of much speculation for the past decade. The 2009 DOD five-year Roadmap talked of “...small air vehicles that could be camouflaged or that blend into the surrounding landscape and that can navigate interiors without GPS [and] autonomously carry out a number of high-risk missions currently done by Warfighters.”

The Army’s Unmanned Systems’ Roadmap 2010-2035 spoke of nanos that “will reconnoiter the interior of structures prior to Soldiers entering” with collision avoidance to negotiate confined spaces and extended endurance “by lying dormant to conserve power or perch[ing] on power lines to draw needed energy.”

The Air Force 2013 Flight Vector mentions nanos that can “perch,” collect, analyze, and communicate at very low power levels, collecting acoustic information and even intercepting communications.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) announced a nano research program in 2005, requesting designs no larger than 7.5 cm in any dimension. Its Defense Sciences Office then funded Mercury, which aimed to mimic the flapping wings of a bird on an “extremely small scale”. The Army Research Laboratory and its Micro-Autonomous Systems Technology Collaborative Technology Alliance of two dozen companies and universities are working with prototypes that use insect-inspired visual sensing, all designed to navigate a 3D space on their own. After four years, AeroVironment developed the video‐capable nano Hummingbird, a small hovering biologically inspired ornithopter weighing only two‐thirds of an ounce. Then came Lockheed Martin’s Samarai, modeled after maple seeds that twirl to the ground on a single wing, powered by a tiny rocket thruster.

It isn’t hard to imagine working objects of this size – just think of a smart phone camera – and indeed pictures of various prototypes is what we’ve been seeing for years. But in the world of spying and killing, the pictures disappeared in about 2008 and that’s because as small batch types started to be used for special operations and hyper secret missions, references to them disappeared. The impression is now created that these are all mere science experiments, and one of the reasons is that countermeasures are rather simple, that is, if you know that they are there. Anti-war protestors have already reported flying objects similar to dragonflies hovering above them, the imagined vanguard of “swarm” that the literature suggests is going to fill technological or operational “gaps” in military or intelligence capabilities. Nanos exist, but on todays and future battlefields they are more fiction than science.

Fun facts about nanos:

  • You can buy your very own for under $50. Check out the Skeye Nano Drone, a quadcopter smaller than your palm.
  • A Danish zoologist, Torkel Weis-Fogh, revolutionized the study of insect flight through high-speed photography in the 1970s. Charles Ellington, one of Weis-Fogh’s students, built one of the first robotic wings, meant to imitate the flight pattern of a hawk moth. Read more about the Rise of Insect Drones.
  • The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) is developing a pocket-sized nano UAV to help soldiers increase situational awareness while out in the field.
  • In 2007, the Blue Horizons Research Team was given an assignment by the US Air Force to recommend long range investments in emerging technologies. According to a paper by Major William Davis at the Air War College, Blue Horizons forecasted that nano UAVs would be “capable of operating in swarms will be available within 10 years to perform operational missions.” Eight years later, that has yet to be documented, but the theory continues to be discussed at length in military circles.
  • If you don’t suffer from motion sickness, here’s a production video of Lockheed Martin’s Samarai:

[Top image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty. All other images obtained by author.]

You can preorder my book on drones, which will be released by Little, Brown & Company on July 29, 2015: