It could sit in your palm, discreetly peep into windows from a tree perch and size up an advancing enemy. You could count on it to scan corporate campuses for intruders; look for explosives, assess dangerous oil spills.

The little flying thing, smaller than a crow or flapping like a butterfly could purvey scenes of riots and disasters to alert or hasten rescue and security agencies.

To P.S. Krishnan, Director of the Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), all that is a trailer of what a micro air vehicle (MAV) will do in its many potential avatars.

‘Immense possibilities’

“Why, five or 10 years down the line, I’m sure you people in the media would be using it, to take and send real-time [overhead] pictures of thick crowds. The possibilities [of MAVs] are simply immense,” he said.

“Soon, MAVs will increasingly be the eyes and ears of the nation’s civil, paramilitary as well as military set-ups, and needed in large numbers,” he reckoned.

The Services have squadrons of the bigger Nishant UAVs or drones, as also the imported Israeli Herons and Searchers.

“If only we had such flying things during the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, we could have located the terrorists’ hideouts far sooner than the 62 hours and saved some lives,” said V.S. Chandrashekar, ADE’s Associate Director.

The winners

Remote sensing satellites were all right for static land imageries. For instant and dynamic information during low-intensity conflicts and counter-terrorism events, the tiny air vehicles would be the winners, he noted.

ADE is at the centre of the Rs 80-crore, five-year National Programme on Micro Air Vehicles (NP-MICAV), which is equally sponsored by Defence Research and Development Organisation and the Department of Science and Technology.

The ADE is working with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) National Aerospace Laboratory in Bangalore, IITs, IISc and many academic institutions.

The National Design and Research Forum is also involved in packing stealth, silence and versatility into these small machines.

“In three to five years from now, we will be developing some sophisticated MAVs,” Mr. Chandrashekar, who heads NP-MICAV, told The Hindu.

Shaping up in this realm are the flapping wing MAVs, tiny helicopters, bio-inspired or bio-mimicking intelligent ‘birds,’ ‘butterflies’ and ‘insects’. Or imagine a scenario where a UAV can send out swarms of recce MAVs.

“We are also working on versions that can sniff out or sense chemicals, gas leaks, explosives or NBC [nuclear, biological or chemical] threats,” Mr. Krishnan said.

MAVs are in the sub-300 gram, 6-12 inch class, compared to Rustom-1, which the ADE is perfecting, and its upcoming upgrade, Rustom-2. They are hand-launched and like the UAVs, do specific jobs and are recovered.

The challenge

The challenge, Mr. Chandrashekar said, was in enhancing the propulsion power. For one, “We will be moving from lithium polymer batteries to fuel cells.”

Three of them developed with NAL are ready for the take: Golden Hawk, Black Kite and Pushpak.

There is also SlyBird, which was shown off at the Aero India 2011, and Imperial Eagle in the 2-kg, 10-km range that can fly as high as 1,000 feet above ground.

For Rustom-1, the ADE is looking out for industrial partners to produce them when large orders come in.

Lakshya aircraft

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd has been making pilotless target aircraft Lakshya with which the Services practise as dummy target.

Mr. Krishnan said, “We have demonstrated our MAVs to many potential user agencies — the National Disaster Management Agency, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, police forces of a few State governments and the Central Reserve Police Force.”

A package of four MAVs with ground control costs around Rs. 8 lakh.