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DARPA orders 'Katana' monoblade nano-copter

Whirly spybird runs on lighter fuel, flown by PSP

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Famed Pentagon crazytech bureau DARPA has handed out half a million greenbacks to buy a tiny one-bladed robot helicopter slightly bigger than a coin, dubbed "Katana" and apparently intended for "indoor military missions".

DARPA - renowned for being of the dungeon laboratory school of science rather than the ivory tower one - made the ink-on-contract announcement this week, awarding $546,076 to US arms gigantocorp Lockheed "to perform the Katana: Mono-Wing Rotorcraft for Tactical Applications effort".

Lockheed had previously done early development work on a tiny, single-rotor aircraft modelled on the "samara" whirling winged seeds found in nature. That effort was dubbed "Samarai", as a portmanteau of samara and samurai.

The Samarai, developed under DARPA's Nano Air Vehicle plan, was intended to be a remarkable gadget which US soldiers or intelligence operatives could carry pocketed in a small blister pack. To take off it would spin up on a handheld spindle, driven by a blade-tip jet running off a tiny propane reservoir in the hub.

The propane tip-jet would offer flight endurance of twenty minutes, allowing the tiny whirling Samarai to fly off and into a target building up to a kilometre away under remote control. Advanced micro-electronics would allow it to deliver a useable video image back to its operator despite the fact that the whole thing was spinning very fast. (A Lockheed paper (pdf) gives the impression that the operator might be using a Sony PSP to control the machine.)

Having reconnoitred the building, and perhaps dropped off a small 2g "payload" - presumably a bug - the Samarai would fly out again and stall in to land on command for recovery. Though an operator could easily carry several spare microchoppers, refuelling "approximating the ease with which a cigarette lighter would be refuelled" would allow easy re-use.

But following Phase I design studies for the Nano Air Vehicle effort, DARPA seemed to favour Aerovironment's rival micro-ornithopter concept and Samarai seemed to be kicked into touch.

Given the name*, the relatively small amount of money involved, and the fact that it is a "mono-wing rotorcraft" it seems pretty clear that Katana is in fact son of Samarai. The boffinry chiefs at DARPA have awarded the Katana money not under the Nano Air Vehicle programme, but under a general heading of "Innovative Systems" funding for which inventors are invited to apply with their own ideas.

It would seem that someone at Lockheed has jazzed up the Samarai plans in some unspecified fashion, re-applied to DARPA under the name "Katana", and so breathed life back into the programme. ®

*In old-time Japan the Katana was the long sword of the Samurai warrior, of course.

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