Navy Develops Mini-Drone Sensor


Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Joseph Dunford, holds an NRL-developed Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft (CICADA) Mark III unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) displayed at the 2015 Department of Defense (DoD) Lab Day, May 14.

The Naval Research Laboratory is testing a new mini-drone about the size of a compact disc designed to glide into areas with special acoustic, meteorological or chemical-detection sensors, service officials explained.

The Close-in-Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, or CICADA, is a small unmanned system engineered to travel in groups and bring special detection technologies to remote or hard to reach areas. The project, while in development for several years, is still in the laboratory phase awaiting funding to transition into operational use, Navy officials said.

“A particular concept for certain kinds of missions would be to overwhelm an adversary with a bunch of very cheap, highly disposable UAVs that as themselves do not fly very well but were primarily used in large numbers to deliver payloads that would perform a useful mission,” Aaron Kahn, senior aerospace engineer, Navy Research Lab, told in an interview.

The CICADA mini-drone, described by Kahn as a flying circuit board, is designed to fly to specific pre-determined waypoints to within 15-feet of a particular location. It is built as a glide drone able to slide through the air and descend from altitudes as high as 29,000 feet.

The mini-drone does not have cameras or electro-optical sensors but rather can be outfitted to swarm or blanket an area with a range of potential sensors including weather sensors, acoustic detection technology or chem-bio assessments, Kahn explained.

“They can travel roughly proportional to the altitude that they are dropped from. If you take the altitude and multiply that height by three – that is the distance the aircraft can fly. If you drop it from one mile it can only fly three miles,” Kahn explained. “You can make a swarm or an array of these on the ground without having to use a lot of data links to do a traditional algorithm.”

Funded and developed completely by the Navy Research Lab, the CICADA will launch into some new test flights later this year slated for Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.

About five or six CICADAs could fit into a six-inch-sized cube, Kahn said, making the mini-drones useful for area denial missions or wide-area monitoring.

“It would be impossible for an adversary to go around and pick all of these things up because there would be too many of them,” Kahn said.

They could also be used with special sensors to check areas for potential chemical or biological contamination, Kahn said.

“This could be used for rapid vaccine delivery where you could attach a small vile of a vaccine. Or – it could help if there was a force that was exposed to a nasty disease and located in a remote area.

The CICADA can also be configured with meteorological sensors to measure atmospheric pressure, humidity and wind speed or direction, Kahn explained.

“The CICADA could do precision drops to do tornado research or hurricane research.  You could stand off away from a storm and drop the CICADA which would traverse into severe weather situations. It would be able to get measurements inside of clouds and other areas that would be dangerous for manned aircraft to fly into,” Kahn said.

The mini-drone is also designed for low-cost production and can be assembled by robotic technology, Kahn added.  This can bring the cost down to hundreds of dollars per drone, he said.

“We use the same robotic techniques as you would use for commercial electronics like a cell phone,” Kahn explained.

- Kris Osborn can be reached at

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