It looks a bit like silver bird. It probably was used to spy on insurgents. And now it's in the hands of the Pakistanis.
Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson flags pictures of an unusual, unfamiliar drone that reportedly crashed over southwestern Pakistan late last week. It's a surveillance drone, with a camera attached—recovered from the crash but not apparently visible in this photo—rather than the larger, deathly flying robots that shoot missiles. This one looks tiny, with a wingspan not much longer than a man's outstretched arms, and clearly light enough for a grown man to carry.
The Pakistani Frontier Corps in Baluchistan province recovered the drone. And they confidently declare it to be an "American surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle." But as Anderson points out, it doesn't look like anything the U.S. flies—or at least acknowledges flying. What's the deal?
Danger Room asked some of our favorite drone and aviation enthusiasts for their perspective on the small mystery drone. And we weren't the only ones who thought it looked decidedly avian.
Check out the SmartBird, a drone designed by the engineers at Festo and modeled explicitly on the herring gull. It's clearly not the same drone, as the wings are obviously different: the mystery drone's wings are straighter and more sharply angled than the SmartBird's sleeker, more rounded wings, which mimic those of the gull. Judging from the light of the second picture, the SmartBird's wings - which flap to enable autonomous flight - are made of more than one type of material, which doesn't appear to be the case with the downed drone. What's more, the downed drone's wings have ailerons and its nose kinda-sorta looks like it hosted a propeller, two features the SmartBird lacks. One of our eagle-eyed experts points out to us that since the SmartBird is designed to weigh less than a pound (!), it probably couldn't have carried a camera in its belly.
But the two drones look fairly similar, especially with their fantail design in the rear, and their dimensions appear to roughly align. (.PDF). TechCrunch has a cool video from last month of the SmartBird flying above a TED talk given by Festo's Markus Fischer.
And there's a recent push to design small drones to look more like birds that extends beyond Festo. Back in the spring, AeroVironment launched a pint-sized drone that looks like a hummingbird. That drone didn't look anything like the one that crashed over Pakistan. But masquerading a spy robot as a bird has obvious benefits to the stealthy drone program that hunts al-Qaida in Pakistan's tribal areas.