The United States Army has given the University a $10 million grant to help develop a tiny robotic spy plane that would be used to collect intelligence for soldiers in combat zones.

University researchers have nicknamed the plane “The Bat” for both its size and the technology it will use.

Measuring just six inches in length, the tiny winged robot will sense possible dangers like bombs by detecting objects, chemicals and vibrations in the air using technology modeled after live bats.

The Bat’s “head” will contain cameras, microphone and radar technology to steer the robot and to instantaneously send information back to soldiers.

The entire robot is only expected to weigh about four ounces.

Kamal Sarabandi, an electrical engineering and computer science professor who will oversee the research, said the Bat will help soldiers gather information about places that may be unsafe to enter.

The first phase of the development project is slated to begin Wednesday and last about five years. Another $12.5 million has been set aside for the second phase of the project, which will last another five years.

The University is one of four research facilities that will collaborate on the development of the spy plane. Each group will work on a different aspect of the plane, the University’s Center for Objective Microelectronics and Biomimetic Advanced Technology will focus on plane’s microelectronics including developing smaller, lighter and more efficient batteries, cameras and microphones to be used in the plane.

University researchers will also develop the plane’s “brain” or the technology that will give it the ability to scavenge like it’s namesake. But instead of scavenging for insects, the mechanical bat will seek out energy sources to recharge its battery.

Other groups will focus on the plane’s autonomous operations, mechanics and assembling the different technologies.

One facility is an industry partner – BAE Systems – who will compile all the research into a prototype.

COM-BAT will involve 12 faculty members and 18 University graduate students who will collaborate with former University professors now at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of New Mexico.

School of Dentistry sophomore Kelly McVey, vice president of the Student Veterans Association, said the technology would help soldiers in combat.

“In terms of being able to scope out an area, it would be very useful,” she said. “Places where you can’t walk into a room until you know it’s safe.”

Sarabandi said if someone grabbed or shot at the plane, it would be a warning to soldiers waiting for information. In the moment before the plane’s destruction, it could take a picture and send an image back to the soldiers.

“Someone could destroy it – if they get their hands on it,” Sarabandi said.

The Bat will be able to avoid detection and avoid attack by using radar similar to a live bat’s echolocation. It uses the radar to avoid accidents and make decisions.

“It has a small brain,” Sarabandi said. “A low-powered microcomputer that can do analysis and make decisions.”

The plane would be able to function autonomously by carefully mapping out and remembering specific routes and movements.

Researchers also plan to make the plane self-sustaining. They will develop a “skin” for the Bat with energy-collecting techniques.

The Bat will detect water, submerge itself and then let the water evaporate from its skin to charge its battery. It will also collect solar energy, and researchers are considering adding a turbine that could collect wind energy.

“Our goal was really to think outside the box,” Sarabandi said. “How you can charge its battery, making it self-sustained – you know, if there’s no sunlight, it can find water.”

The University received around $49 million in awards from the Department of Defense in the 2007 fiscal year, which included awards from the Army, Navy, Air Force and National Security Agency, according to University research data.

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