DARPA wants vanishing drones

Credit: Reuters

It’s a description right out of a James Bond or Mission: Impossible script: Create a flock of unmanned aircraft that can be dropped from a larger mothership to take on a mission, then actually vanish once the mission is carried out.

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Engineers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency envision the disappearing drones as ideal for a number of missions, including the delivery of humanitarian or military aid to people or military personnel in rough terrain or hard-to reach-places.

“In one program-driving scenario, troops are called upon to deliver food, perishable vaccines, insulin, and blood and plasma products to widespread, difficult-to-reach destinations in the aftermath of an earthquake or tsunami. The option to forget entirely about the remains of all those delivery vehicles once they have done their job would relieve response teams from the logistics task of packing and transporting the vehicles out of the affected region while essentially eliminating environmental impacts from the vehicles’ deployment,” DARPA stated. “In a military context, access to small, unmanned delivery systems whose structural and avionics components were made with transient materials could ease the provision of, say, water, batteries or emergency medical supplies without adding to a [the requirement of carrying out the equipment].”

vapr 619 316 DARPA

Progress in the development of vanishing polymers has opened pathways toward vanishing systems, such as air-dropped delivery vehicles.

The program aimed at developing these drones is called the Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems or ICARUS. DARPA’s description of ICARUS drone requirements goes like this:

1) [The plane must] fully vanish within four hours of payload delivery or within 30 minutes of morning civil twilight (assuming a night drop), whichever is earlier.

2) Precisely drop an up to 3 lb. payload within 10 m of the target landing spot programmed prior to air release.

3) Exert < 100 G on the payload throughout its delivery.

4) Cover a lateral distance of > 150 km when released from a stationary balloon at 35,000 feet.

5) Span fewer than 3m in its longest dimension.

According to DARPA, no system currently exists that fulfills the complete specifications described above.

“State-of-the- art precision delivery using Tandem Offset Resupply Delivery Systems, Joint Precision Airdrop Systems (JPADS), or civilian quadcopters or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) typically require complex materials and/or controllers to meet the aerodynamic requirements, but simply cannot vanish. There is a potential future where systems can be made cheap enough to be disposable limiting the logistics trail, and maximizing range for a given flight system.”

The ICARUS system isn’t out of the blue for DARPA. The research agency last year introduced its Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program whose goal is to develop transient electronics or electronics capable of dissolving into the environment around them. Transient electronics developed under VAPR would maintain the current functionality and ruggedness of conventional electronics, but, when triggered, be able to degrade partially or completely into their surroundings -- rendering them useless to an enemy.

DARPA said it expects VAPR research will develop what it calls a number of revolutionary and meaningful military capabilities including sensors for conventional indoor or outdoor environments, environmental monitoring over large areas, and simplified diagnosis, treatment, and health monitoring in the field. Large-area distributed networks of sensors that can decompose in the natural environment may provide critical data for a specified duration. Alternatively, devices that reasorb into the body could be promising transient electronic implants to aid in continuous health monitoring in the field.

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