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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Micro aviation refers to tiny flying machines remotely piloted. Often they're inspired by birds or insects, study the living flying machines and then build your own. Well, people at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base based in Dayton, Ohio are doing just that.

NPR's Noah Adams paid a visit to the base.

NOAH ADAMS: When they talk about all this at Wright-Patterson, somebody might say it's down in the future stuff, as in - who knows, maybe 30 years out. But at the Air Force Base, the proper term is micro air vehicle.

LESLIE PERKINS, MICRO PROGRAM, AIR FORCE RESEARCH LABORATORY.: If you close your eyes and think of a fat pigeon, that's about the biggest size that we want to use.

ADAMS: Leslie Perkins who worked with the micro program at the Air Force Research Laboratory. So the fat pigeon and for the smallest?

LABORATORY.: Insect size, so think of a dragonfly. If your listeners are free with their hands and not driving, your pinky finger is about the size of the fuselage. And the span of your hands is about the size of the wings.

ADAMS: These are, indeed, gentle images of nature but the micro vehicles would be used by what the research lab calls "the war fighter, to improve total weapon agility," end quote.

The Air Force graduate school at Wright-Patterson is also deep into micro air.

STEVE ROSS: You want to see it fly? We can do that.

ADAMS: Ph.D. candidate Steve Ross is ready to fly his small quad-rotor helicopter. It's about the size of a laptop.

ROSS: But you might not want to stand that close.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

ADAMS: It's a flat helicopter platform. It has four motors, they work in opposition so it can rise and dip and bank.

Steve Ross is a lieutenant colonel. He's working on a doctorate at the Air Force Institute of Technology, here at Wright-Patterson. This project will be his dissertation.

ROSS: These little tiny UAVs are great for things like surveillance, or looking around, or collecting data that way, but they're very short on battery power.

ADAMS: Colonel Ross is helping develop a guidance system. The micros would be able to steal power from utility lines. They'll fly up in a slow approach, and then use a hook to catch on.

ROSS: Hang a couple of them on a power line to recharge batteries, send one of them on site, and you just cycle through like you were coming off of a tanker. And you can keep one guy on station all the time and have a continuous presence.

MAJOR: The Latin term is Manduca sexta and it's the tobacco hawk moth. And it's basically a very common moth than can hover.

ADAMS: On a workbench nearby, a carbon fiber wing - its about the size of your thumb - is connected to a small motor. It's poised to flap. This is the Ph.D. project of Major Ryan O'Hara. He's been working on this for two years. The bio-engineering is based on a moth that you could find in your garden.

, STUDENT, AIR FORCE INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: The individual fibers are about seven microns in diameters. So the normal human hair is about 75. So we take these very, very thin carbon fibers, we put them in epoxy resin, and we lay them up in different orientations.

ADAMS: Major O'Hara flips on the motor, the wing quickly blurs, flapping 30 times a second. And then a strobe light stops the motion and there's the elegant deflection of the wing, curving as if in flight.

You can see a picture of this that we took in the lab at Wright-Patterson. It's on our website, NPR.org.

The Air Force says this is early research into the potential of micro aircraft. They don't know how they'll be used.

Fiction writers, of course, have no hesitation. They could describe an insect buzzing through an open window, an almost silent nighttime attack.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

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