The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently awarded Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) a modest $1.7 million contract to design a remotely controlled "nano air vehicle" (NAV).

The miniature device has nothing to do with nanotechnology (its size is nowhere near nanoscale) but, at 1.5 inches -- about the size of a maple seed, which the device is said to resemble -- it's still impressively small.

According to reports, DARPA is hoping that the NAV will be able to deliver a sensor payload about a half-mile from its point of release, then return safely to its home base for its next mission.

If Lockheed engineers can successfully produce such a device, it would obviously have a host of military applications, including ferreting out possible terrorist and insurgent hideouts, as well as detecting everything from roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to the presence of biological and chemical weapons.

Beyond the military application, however, I believe such a tool could find a niche market among firefighters, who could use the device to determine the location of victims in the event of a fire, or police agencies, to control crowds.

The device is still in the very early stages of development, and it won't be known until next summer whether the NAV has passed its first round of tests. But what excites me about the technology is that it requires Lockheed to utilize revolutionary new manufacturing technologies -- and techniques -- to integrate the near-microscopic components into the tiny airframe.

To understand what Lockheed engineers must accomplish in order to successfully meet DARPA's criteria, it is useful to know that the NAV can weigh no more than 0.07 ounce. It must possess an independent energy source, an onboard processor, and a self-stabilizing wireless camera that allows the device to conduct autonomous operations.

As I wrote last week about Lockheed's new 3-D rapid prototyping technology, the possibility for the company to expand upon these capabilities and incorporate them into its many other products could give it a serious leg up on competitors such as Raytheon (NYSE:RTN), Boeing (NYSE:BA), and Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC).

The bottom line is this: One of the best ways to grow a new product line is to plant a lot of seeds. That's exactly what I see Lockheed Martin doing across a spate of projects, including this one.

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is confident that one "seed" that will grow and flourish in the years ahead is nanotechnology. He does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.