NASA, U.S. Navy Team Up to Test Microdrones

CICADA drones, foreground, with a "hive" octocopter (NASA)

Published Apr 22, 2019 7:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy and NASA are teaming up to test drone-deployed minidrones for meteorological research.

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory's CICADA (Close-in Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft) is a miniature guided drone that can be dropped from aloft to deploy small electronics payloads. It is unpowered, but it has a GPS receiver and it can use flaps to guide its glide path. According to NRL, CICADA can place communication nodes, sensors, or other payloads in a programmable pattern in hostile territory, without directly over-flying the target areas or exposing human personnel on the ground. NRL reports that they can reach their programmed destination with an accuracy of about five meters.

NRL describes the device as a "flying circuit board," and it is intended to be lightweight, small and cheap. Its fuselage is 3D-printed plastic, and it is designed to be robotically assembled for mass production. The CICADA's form factor lends itself to high-volume deployment: 18 of the units can be packed into a six-inch cube, and 32 will fit in a launch tube for the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft (below). 

Previous NRL tests in 2017 demonstrated the system's deployability from standard Navy airborne platforms (NRL)

NASA tests drone-based deployment of CICADA micro-drones (NASA)

In recent testing, NASA researchers managed to fit 25 underneath a large octocopter drone (below). NASA is partnering with NRL in hopes that the palm-sized drones could also help meteorologists gain a more accurate picture of the dynamics of storms. They are equipped with tiny pressure, humidity and temperature sensors, and by dropping the devices into a weather system from above, researchers could gain fine-grained data about its characteristics. 

In 2017, NRL researcher Dan Edwards told IEEE Spectrum that he could envision using the CICADA to gain new insight into the inner workings of tornados. “I really would love to fly an airplane over, and each of these could sample in the tornado. That’s ready now. We’d just need a ride," he said. With NASA's help, that ride could be on the way.