We've seen autonomous MAVs (micro air vehicles) before, and we've seen flapping-wing MAVs before. According to a group of researchers from the Netherlands' Delft University of Technology, however, we've never seen an autonomous flapping-wing MAV – until now. Yesterday the four-man team announced its DelFly Explorer, which is described as "the first flapping wing Micro Air Vehicle that is able to fly with complete autonomy in unknown environments."

The MAV has a 28-cm (11-in) wingspan and weighs just 20 grams ("about as much as four sheets of A4 paper"), but still manages to pack in a 4-gram stereo vision system consisting of two cameras and a processor, along with a 1-gram autopilot that incorporates a barometer, accelerometers and gyroscopes. Oh yes, and it also has motors and a battery, the latter of which allows for flight times of about nine minutes.

It is able to take off, maintain altitude (using the barometer) and avoid obstacles without any human assistance, and with all sensing and processing taking place onboard the aircraft. Its vision system doesn't produce exactly stunning images, but is sufficient for identifying obstacles and determining how far away they are – algorithms built into that system compensate for distortions caused by the flapping motion and the rolling shutter cameras.

In its present form, although the Explorer can move throughout a room without running into things, it can't pass through openings such as doorways or windows. The team is working on adding such capabilities, allowing it to operate more as an exploratory vehicle.

Typical suggested uses for MAVs in general include surveillance and spying, although team member Guido de Croon thinks that craft like the Explorer might also be useful for "fun" applications such as streaming live aerial video at concerts, or taking on the role of fluttering elves at amusement parks.

The Explorer, incidentally, is the fourth DelFly MAV in a line that stretches back to 2005. The previous model, the remote-control DelFly Micro, was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the "smallest camera-equipped aircraft in the world".

In the video below, the Explorer can be seen in flight.

Sources: DelFly, Robohub