An aircraft flying at night drops a flock of unpowered drones. They carry food, medicines and batteries. After delivering their load on the ground, the drones vaporize into thin air within hours.
Disposable drones that can make precise deliveries before vanishing may look like a product of Stark Industries. But the fictional giant of military technology run by Tony "Iron Man" Stark has nothing to do with them. Instead, the development of "disappearing delivery vehicles" is a project by DARPA, the Department of Defense's research and development agency.
DARPA, officially called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is working with several companies in the field of ephemeral materials to achieve a prototype.
The name of the $8 million program is ICARUS (Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems), which alludes to the mythological hero who flew too close to the sun by using wings made of wax and feathers. The program aims to mimic the material transience that is depicted in the myth. In fact, finding a balance between the properties of the material to build disposable drones is the main challenge, says Troy Olsson, ICARUS program manager.
"The material [which disposable drones will be made of] has to be reliable enough to enable the flight," but then be able to vanish after delivering its payload, he says.
Options range from cardboard to polymer-based or glass-based materials. San Francisco firm Otherlab, for example, received a grant of about $1 million from DARPA in 2015 to develop cardboard-made expandable and disposable drones, according to Mikell Taylor, team lead of the project at Otherlab.
All the disposable drones under development as part of ICARUS are, technically, gliders — they don't have motors like traditional drones. They have to be dropped by an aircraft and then take advantage of the wind. An on-board navigation system allows disposable drones to correct their course and land in a precise location.
While the drone is flying, on-board sensors are supposed to measure wind and adjust its path accordingly. "[Disposable drones] fly themselves, which is a difference with commercial drones," which are remotely operated, Olsson notes. Ideally, disposable drones could carry payloads of three to 10 pounds.
The dream result would be a prototype glider that travels from 150 to 200 kilometers [93 to 124 miles] when dropped from 35,000 feet, lands within 10 meters [33 feet] of its target and vanishes within four hours after delivering its load, Olsson says.
Otherlab researchers did some actual testing. Taylor says they used off-the-shelf traditional drones to drop disposable ones from below 400 feet, the maximum altitude drones are allowed to operate under Federal Aviation Administration rules. Later, at an Army facility, researchers were able to drop disposable vehicles from 1,000 feet, she says.
"We bought all the materials we used off the shelves to focus on the airframe design," she says.
DARPA wants the disposable drones to be low-cost — from $250 to a couple of thousand dollars each, including the guidance and navigation system that combined are the size of a tennis ball, according to Olsson.
In the battlefield, applications of disposable drones would range from bringing medicines to injured soldiers to providing any critical supply — food, batteries or electrical components — to helping troops that encounter an unexpected situation. But disposable drones may also come in handy as part of a wide-scale response to earthquakes or other disasters, when people need humanitarian supplies.
"We are competing with parachute dropping, and the precision of landing is the difference," Taylor says. "For disposable drones, the range of landing accuracy is 50 feet. In an emergency situation, you want that precision."
Lucia Maffei is an NPR Business Desk intern.