Researchers at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands today unveiled a small, remote-controlled aircraft weighing just 0.11 ounces (three grams) and with a four-inch (10-centimeter) wingspan--just large enough to accommodate an onboard camera.

The DelFly "micro air vehicle," which flaps its wings and looks like a dragonfly, can fly for about three minutes at a speed of 16.4 feet (five meters) per second. The team hopes the DelFly Micro--Delft's third-generation robot flyer (after the 0.81-ounce (23-gram) DelFly I in 2005 and the 0.56-ounce (16-gram) DelFly II a year later) will capture images from nooks and crannies that bigger cameras cannot reach. The DelFly II's camera transmits TV-quality images, allowing it to be operated from a computer using a joystick and giving the person controlling the mechanical insect the feeling of being inside the cockpit of a miniature aircraft. The researchers are hoping to further develop the DelFly Micro's camera so that it can be used the same way. They are also working to give the DelFly Micro the ability to hover (like a hummingbird) and fly backwards (the DelFly II can do both).

Next on the agenda: the DelFly NaNo, projected to weigh a single gram and have a two-inch (five-centimeter) wingspan. In addition to making ever-smaller robots, the researchers want to add image recognition software that will let the DelFlys zoom on their own without getting tangled in a tree or crashing into a wall.

(Image courtesy of the Delft University of Technology)