Seiko Unveils Mini Flying Machine - InformationWeek
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Seiko Unveils Mini Flying Machine

The company hopes its Micro Flying Robot, the world's smallest and lightest helicopter, can be used as a "flying camera" during natural disasters.

When James Bond summoned Little Nellie in You Only Live Twice, it was hard not to be impressed as Q and two assistants showed up in Japan with four suitcases that contained the parts to the one-seat autogiro that battled the attack helicopters sent by SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion.

It was hard to believe this machine flew, but the camera didn't lie, and at 9-1/2 feet long and just 250 pounds, Nellie got the job done.

Thirty-four years later, Seiko Epson Corp. has decreased the size but upped the excitement. That's because its flying machine isn't just for the movies; it's an invention with immense possibilities.

Seiko's Micro-Flying RobotWeighing 0.35 ounces (10 grams) and measuring 2.8 inches (70 millimeters) in height, the Micro Flying Robot was unveiled recently as the world's lightest and smallest robot helicopter. The company hopes it will be used as a "flying camera" during natural disasters.

Barring The Incredible Shrinking Man, there's no room for a human on this machine, which was three years in the making at an undisclosed price tag, says Alastair Bourne, supervisor of corporate communications. Bourne, talking from Japan, says the company developed the robot to showcase Seiko Epson's technology--including four energy-saving, ultrasonic compact motors, each of which oscillates at 300,000 vibrations per second--and to publicize this sort of technology. "The robot wasn't made with any particular application or product in mind, but to show what we can do," he explains. "A lot of companies will see it and have ideas for its use."

Seiko Epson engineer Osamu Miyazawa says the robot was a follow-up to a series of company microrobot inventions that began with 1993's Monsieur, the world's smallest microrobot as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.

After unveiling the Monsieur II-P in April 2003, Miyazawa says, "The next challenge was to test the possibilities of microrobots in another dimension--the air. In many ways it is a natural progression from Monsieur II-P," which moves freely along the ground.

The biggest challenge, he adds, was to make an engine that was small and light, but which had sufficient power. "As you can appreciate, the smaller an engine becomes, the less power it has," he said. "Designing the engine was therefore a question of finding a careful balance between weight, size, and power."

The prototype--Bourne says Seiko Epson doesn't even like to call it a "product" because the company isn't going to sell it--is powered via a cable connected to an electric generator because there's still no battery light enough to enable it to fly.

"As a company, you have to realize where your strengths and limitations are, and if it became a product, we'd probably have to develop it in tandem," Bourne says.

The robot includes a PC running the Windows operating system, Miyazawa says. However, he adds, all other software used to direct the robot was specially designed by Epson.

The robot has a 3.5-volt motor that consumes 3 watts of power. "We have been experimenting with attaching a sensor or a camera to the robot," Miyazawa says. "One interesting possibility is home or office security. The robot could be programmed to fly around an unattended building and check for intruders using the sensor. Another idea would be to use it to check the state of your house when you are on vacation. You could attach a camera, and view the pictures taken by the robot via your cell phone."

Adds Bourne, "One of the applications we think it may be used for is in natural disasters, like an earthquake. It could be used to fly over areas where there's lots of rubble or too dangerous for humans to walk. Another would be in regard to children playing in the garden, and a father can have a look at them from inside the house."

But what would Bond have used it for?

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