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February 18, 2011

Hummingbird spy drones and progress to megawatt class free electron lasers


1. A prototype robot spy "ornithopter," the Nano-Hummingbird, has successfully completed flight trials in California.

Video of the hummingbird spy drone in action shows it is much more capable and with the ability to do its acrobatics for much longer.

The drone, built by AeroVironment with funding from DARPA, is able to fly forwards, backwards, and sideways, as well as rotate clockwise and counterclockwise. Not only does the 'bot resemble its avian inspiration in size (it's only slightly larger than a hummingbird, with a 6.5-inch wingspan and a weight of 19 grams), it also looks impressively like a hummingbird in flight.




The drone can currently fly for about eight minutes, impressive considering that range was only 20 seconds a short two years ago. But the engineers aren't satisfied, branding the current drone a prototype and continuing to work on it. Within a decade, says AeroVironment's project manager, this drone could easily be counted on to carry out complex and difficult reconnaissance missions



2. Jefferson Labs version of the Navy’s free electron laser death ray or FEL is able to power its electron gun to 500 kilovolts. This will speed up getting to deployment of FEL-weapons-system technology” from a Virginia lab to the high seas.

The free-electron laser is one of the Navy’s highest-priority weapons programs, and it’s not hard to see why. “We’re fast approaching the limits of our ability to hit maneuvering pieces of metal in the sky with other maneuvering pieces of metal,” says Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, the Navy’s chief of research. The next level: “fighting at the speed of light and hypersonics” — that is, the free-electron laser and the Navy’s Mach-8 electromagnetic rail gun.

Say goodbye to an adversary’s antiship missiles, and prepare to fire bullets from 200 miles away, far from shoreline defenses. No wonder the Navy asked Congress to double its budget for directed-energy weapons this week to $60 million, most of which will go to the free-electron laser.

It won’t be until the 2020s, Carr estimates, that a free-electron laser will be mounted on a ship

Currently, the free-electron laser project produces the most-powerful beam in the world, able to cut through 20 feet of steel per second. If it gets up to its ultimate goal, of generating a megawatt’s worth of laser power, it’ll be able to burn through 2,000 feet of steel per second. Just add electrons.

And that’s why Hernandez’s achievement is so important. He shrugs, concealing his pride. A powerful accelerator at Cornell University is “stuck at 250″ kilovolts, he grins. And he’s on a roll. Hernandez’s team fired up the injector in December with enough pressure to prove the FEL will ultimately reach megawatt class.

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