DARPA Funds Drone That Disintegrates Itself After Use

Tuesday, 07 November 2017 - 7:10PM
Tuesday, 07 November 2017 - 7:10PM
DARPA Funds Drone That Disintegrates Itself After Use
The problem with delivering goods by drone is that you always have to prepare for a return flight. The drone not only has to navigate its way through a single trip, it also needs to be able to get back home again afterwards.

This can be a real pain, as drone recovery may be either a lot of hassle, or a serious security risk, in the case of military units that are hoping to keep their location confidential. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA for short) has been looking into ways to solve this problem for several years now.

Their ultimate solution: a drone which is entirely biodegradable, disintigrating upon arrival at its destination without leaving behind any evidence that it was there. At least, that's the theory - in practice, DARPA's new drone does leave behind a compact guidance system, but everything else about the autonomous flying bot will completely dissolve once it's accomplished its mission.

The drone is named ICARUS, a reference to the ill-fated character in Greek mythology who died after he flew too close to the sun on homemade wings that were held together with wax. Just like Icarus of legend, this drone's wings will melt away to nothingness, leaving behind little more than a puddle of goo. It's just unlike the Icarus story, these wings are supposed to do that. 

While the mythology reference would have been ample reason for the name, its creators, a team of MIT graduates, have gone the extra mile and come up with a slightly redundant acronym as well. The Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems program is a bit of a mouthful as far as names go, but let's just humor the bot's creators, and allow them to give their new drone a silly name if they really want to.

The group of students, collectively known by the company name of MORSE, successfully won a DARPA defense contract to develop ICARUS after the call was thrown open in 2015 for anyone who could perfect this system. The military has a lot of interest in being able to deliver packages discretely without leaving any trace behind, and the team at MORSE seem to have delivered. According to the MIT website:

Opening quote
"To make the disappearing drones a reality, MORSE developed a self-flying vehicle that is made from lightweight film that contains a guidance system smaller than a tennis ball. The vehicle is made of specially developed polymers that, when exposed to heat or sunlight, quickly depolymerize, or disintegrate, into a clear liquid substance, leaving only the guidance system and delivered supplies upon landing."
Closing quote

The big challenge, presumably, is in producing a drone that won't dissolve into nothingness too soon. At present, this drone is only useful in dark, cool environments, so it's limited to nighttime missions in areas of the world below a certain temperature.

What's really impressive about this drone is its ability to carry resources within its thin frame. ICARUS may not be capable of carrying hugely heavy loads, but it's a triumph that it's able to heft anything at all when its own frame is deliberately designed to fall apart at the slightest tough.

Beyond resource drops, there are all kinds of potential uses within the military for a flying robot that dissolves upon the completion of its mission. A drone that can fire a sniper rifle already exists, and it wouldn't be surprising if some expert at DARPA tried to find a way to weaponize these dissolving droids for sneaky covert missions - although at present a drone's weapon probably wouldn't be able to similarly dissipate into nothingness.

In other industries, even horrendously illegal ones, these kinds of drones could be fantastically useful. It's easy to imagine couriers using these bots to get packages out to people nice and quickly, without needing to collect their drones again afterward. As drone technology continues to advance, we'll likely see a lot of different new ideas for dissolving drones spring up.
Science News