Nano-quadrotors: Big Threat on a Small Scale?

What this Ted Talk as a primer for this post:


Guest Post by: Bob Fletcher

I have been in the field of emergency management for more than 40 years and have studied hazards and threats of all kinds; natural and manmade. I lived through the Civil Defense Era with the looming threat of strategic nuclear attack and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. I fear the power of nature as well and its destructive forces. And an emergency manager at the national level for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a career senior executive at FEMA, I have witnessed first-hand 4 decades of incidents of all types . And as a consultant to government, I have dedicated the last 12 years to imagining catastrophic future threats and their consequences. So you might conclude that there aren’t many things that I haven’t considered possible in the realm of hazards. That would be wrong.

The use of nano-technology for terrorism has recently become one of my biggest interests and concerns. I have been aware of the field for many years. Who hasn’t read Popular Science articles or Sci-fi novels where self replicating swarms of nano-bots threaten our very existence. “Prey” and the recently released “Micro” by Michael Crichton fascinate us with descriptions of nanotechnology gone awry. I have often read books such as these and pondered the timeline for emergence of these threats. I believe that the time for concern is now.

While paging through Flipboard recently, I stumbled upon a YouTube video that shocked me. The General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory at University of Pennsylvania researchers are building autonomous vehicles and robots, developing self-configuring humanoids, and making robot swarms a reality. The video that I viewed was of a swarm of 20 flying “nanno quadrotors” executing precision maneuvers that would make any human pilot envious. These tiny remote controlled and self controlled devices acted in unison to execute complex tasks flawlessly, including the ability to act in unison to lift and construct structures, fly in formation through open windows and small openings, perch and remain on vertical and horizon surfaces in surveillance mode, and re-launch on command, or autonomously. As I watched the video, my fascination turned to paranoia as the realization that the capability to execute nano-terrorism is now a practical reality. Although the potential for aerially deployed agents is only limited by ones imagination, terrestrial and subsurface (land and water) nano-robotic threats are similarly endless.

The same Penn GRASP website shows videos of very small seemingly unstoppable 6 legged all terrain robots in action. Again, in large numbers, this is a frightening capability that could be employed with relatively low cost and potentially high consequence. A quick check on the Google revealed that the latest, smallest remote controlled helicopter can be purchased on line for less than $50. Clearly the GRASP quadrotors cost much more, for now. But a larger retail version of a quadrotor called a Parrot AR.Drone Quadricopter is available for around $300 at your local Brookstone store or on line. It comes ready to fly and can be controlled by a IPhone app! ( I plan to buy one)

I don’t mean to mislead you. Robotics is just a small sliver of what might be called nanotechnology. Definitions abound and most would assert that nanotechnology begins at a much smaller size. The official definition of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative is that nanotechnology involves research and technology development at the atomic, molecular or macromolecular levels in the length scale of 1 to 100 nm range. And there are differences of opinion about how the term applies to science and engineering versus outcomes or applications. So, I do not intend to go there, at least for now. Imagine an ant, a human hair, a blood cell, a virus, DNA and downward as the range of concern. But, if I can buy a miniature helicopter today for $15, I will be able to buy a nano-ATV in the near future.
The Yin Yang of technology has always existed and will continue to challenge and excite our imaginations. As an engineer and an emergency management consultant, I will include nanotech threats in my next hazard identification and risk assessment (HIRA) for clients as they seek to look over the horizon. I will also explore their positive application in combating and responding to current and future threats such as in detection, monitoring, surveillance, countermeasures and response missions in hostile environments.
Meanwhile remember, what you can’t see can hurt you.

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