In developing regions where lack of road infrastructure is problematic for those in the business of moving goods, drones are already having an impact. But also problematic is the fact that the people sending drones off to do the courier work kinda need them back again. A new cardboard drone being funded by DARPA won't concern itself with such limitations, with the ability to deliver vital goods and disappear soon after the job is done.
Back in 2015 we learned of a typically futuristic DARPA program called ICARUS, which stands for Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems. As the title suggests, the name of the game is to develop small, single-use aircraft that can be deployed from larger aircraft, carry supplies to isolated locations and evaporate thereafter.
The venture builds on and incorporates an earlier DARPA program called Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR), which is basically a research effort to develop self-destructing electronics as a way of stopping military gear from falling into the wrong hands. Looking to find a home for this vanishing circuitry, the agency has now provided the San Francisco-based research team at Otherlab with funding to build what would surely be the most tech-savvy paper plane to take to the skies (apologies to the PowerUp FPV).
The Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions (APSARA) systems are a heavy-duty cardboard gliders that can be deployed from an aircraft like a C-17 cargo plane, by the hundreds. Star Simpson, hardware developer on the project, tells us that they can then glide up to around 55 mi (88 km) away from the drop point, before circling in and making a precise landing with the cargo in tow.
"We have done tests releasing our aircraft from 1,000 ft (304 mt) and proved their ability to turn at waypoints and to land within close range of a specific location," Simpson tells New Atlas.
Once the goods have arrived, the drones biodegrade in a matter of days. And because it is a glider without motors and rotors, it means that all of the onboard electronics, courtesy of DARPA's VAPR program, go with it. Otherlab isn't disclosing the cost of each drone, only saying that they are designed to be both expendable and biodegradable.
The payloads could include blood, vaccines and other medically-sensitive fluids, and the aircraft could be used in disaster zones as well as battlefield scenarios. "The current models carry 1 kg (2.2 lb), we believe they could scale up to carrying 10 kg (22 lb) without issue," says Simpson.