Cutting-Edge "Maple Seed" Drones are About to Reshape High-Tech Surveillance

A new generation of small drones and robots are about to reshape the world of high-tech surveillance.

They include drones that look like the seeds of a maple tree and others that can fly in formation like a flock of birds.

Soon swarms of drones will hit the skies and take to the oceans...

They could provide remote surveillance for complex systems like oil rigs and power plants. Or they could help farmers track crop yields and insects in their fields.

But no matter how you slice it this is cutting-edge stuff...

Take the case of the newest entry from Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT). Its latest spy drone is called the Samarai.

The firm compares it to maple tree seeds that millions of kids over the years have turned into toy helicopters.

Drones that Take Their Cue From Nature

Fact is, maple seeds make great auto-rotating craft -- just let them go and watch them fly. In nature they begin rotating almost from the instant they fall from a tree. They work so well that NASA engineers have studied them.

Some of you may have heard of Lockheed Martin's Samarai in the past.

The company released details last year, but only posted the video to the Web last month. You can watch it in action on YouTube by clicking here.

Lockheed Martin execs says this new approach could save the U.S. government tons of money.

Rather than launch one big drone that could get shot down, our armed forces could drop thousands of these at a fraction of the cost.

Using a tablet computer, the "pilot" can maneuver the device while it captures video. To ensure the footage doesn't make viewers sea sick, Lockheed Martin wrote an algorithm to compensate for the whirling effect.

Look for Lockheed Martin to announce more advances in the field. Last January, the defense giant bought Procerus Technologies, a firm specializing in autopilot and other avionics for micro unmanned aerial systems.

Samaria itself stems from a project launched by a research arm of the Pentagon known as DARPA. That unit began the work back in 2007 under its "nano air" project.

But this isn't the only DARPA-backed mini drone to create media buzz with web videos.

In a Money Morning article last December I told you that DARPA had worked with AeroVironment Inc. (NASDAQ: AVAV) to create a hummingbird drone.

That same device landed in TIME magazine's list of the top 50 inventions of 2011.

Meantime, a German team recently developed a flock of drones with special sensors that allow them to fly in formation without running into each other. They also provide high-quality 3D images.

With a total wingspan of about six feet, this mini-helicopter is much larger than DARPA's micro drones. But it's every bit as complex.

It's the brainchild of theFraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems

in Germany. Researchers there say the swarm of what wags call "Eye-Bots" could work well for crowd control.
The team sees other uses as well. The flock could help with disasters by telling workers where to find victims that need help. Urban planners could use them to produce 3D models of streets or to inspect roofs from a distance to check on solar panels.

A New Wave of Undersea Robots

Of course, not all unmanned systems fly. Some take to the water instead.< Consider the case of the hydrogen-powered robotic jellyfish invented by a team at Virginia Tech with funding by the Pentagon.

The robot gets its juice from the chemical reactions between the oxygen and hydrogen in water and the platinum on bot's surface. Heat is then transferred to the robofish's artificial muscles, causing them to move.

Designed to aid in under-water rescues, these robofish aren't technically spy devices. But it would take very little to fit them with a wide range of sensors that could track ship movements or provide other data to military leaders.

Clearly, we are entering a period in which high tech will move faster than we can fully comprehend.

Not surprisingly, this new trend in spy technology has already raised privacy concerns.

But the companies building the drones are aware of those concerns. In fact, a trade group for the drone makers recently released a code of conduct to address privacy issues.

At present, federal officials still haven't given the green light to operate most of these advanced platforms.

But when they do, you can bet that the legal issues surrounding the use of these drones -- like getting search warrants -- will get resolved.

So, fasten your seat belts -- it's going to be a very wild ride

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Michael A. Robinson is a 36-year Silicon Valley veteran and one of the top tech and biotech financial analysts working today. That's because, as a consultant, senior adviser, and board member for Silicon Valley venture capital firms, Michael enjoys privileged access to pioneering CEOs, scientists, and high-profile players. And he brings this entire world of Silicon Valley "insiders" right to you...

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