Bzzzzz … Bzzzzz … Hey! Put that flyswatter back in its holster, buster. That bug might appear to be no more than a splatterworthy annoyance, but there's a chance that whacking it could put you on the government's spit list. And you don't even want to think about being on the hook to reimburse the Feds for the cleverly disguised robot you just terminated with extreme prejudice.

The Washington Post reported last year about antiwar protesters who suspected that what seemed like dragonflies in the sky were actually high-tech surveillance drones deployed by the government. Now, the Post reported that the Pentagon currently has a stable of some 100 flying robots built by everyone from Honeywell (NYSE:HON) to Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) to Boeing (NYSE:BA). Some are the size of "real" airplanes. Others as small as model airplanes.

And while officials with the Defense Department and Homeland Security officially denied that the bugs that were bugging the protesters were the next-smallest iteration of military flying robots, by this time next year, they may no longer be able to make that claim.

On Tuesday, flying-robotics specialist AeroVironment (NASDAQ:AVAV) announced that it had won a $636,000 contract to enter Phase II of the DARPA's Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) program. Having already collected $1.7 million to design a mini flying robot, AV is now charged with building a working prototype -- "a rudimentary, three-inch flapping-wing air vehicle system ... to weigh no more than 10 grams." (DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.)

To put that in perspective for you, 10 grams is about a third of an ounce in 'Merican. It's about as much as an alligator's brain weighs. Or for those who've never had the opportunity to hold such an organ, it's about the weight of five Lay's potato chips.

Ooh! That's small!
Dang right it's small. But the opportunity here is big. Initially, AV could win another 18 months of funding under Phase II if its prototype flies. Then we could see the company make serious money if it actually gets to build the things in quantity. This all seems to play right into developments in "swarming" robot technology, being worked on in locales as diverse as Haifa, Israel, and right here at home with robotics pioneer iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT).

At this early stage, I can't really quantify how big the nanorobotic opportunity is for AV. But I'll tell you one thing: It ain't small.

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This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.