DARPA Waves Magic Funding Wand to Conjure Disappearing Drones

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Credit: MIT

Two years ago, the Pentagon’s top think-tank issued a science-fiction level challenge to researchers – develop a disposable, vanishing drone.

In 2015, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency released a funding proposal to create “a flock of small, single-use, unpowered delivery vehicles dropped from an aircraft, each of which literally vanishes after landing and delivering food or medical supplies to an isolated village during an epidemic or disaster.”

The idea emerged from DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program – a project that yielded self-destructing electronic components. Always on the lookout for yet another cool acronym, DARPA leveraged the VAPR program to unleash ICARUS (Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems).

“Vanishing delivery vehicles could extend military and civilian operational capabilities in extenuating circumstances where currently there is no means to provide additional support,” VAPR and ICARUS program manager Troy Olsson said in a press release.

“Inventing transient materials, devising ways of scaling up their production and combining those challenges with the hard control and aerodynamic requirements to reach the precision and soft-landing specs we need here makes for a challenging and compelling engineering problem.”

Fast forward to 2017 – MORSE, an MIT alumni-created start-up took the DARPA ball and ran with it. MORSE researchers recently conducted a successful test of a “self-flying vehicle that is made from lightweight film that contains a guidance system smaller than a tennis ball,” an MIT press release states.

The tiny drone consists of polymers that “vanish” (depolymerize) into a clear liquid when exposed to sunlight or heat.  The drone’s payload and guidance system remain unscathed for a safe landing.

The Pentagon’s specs for the ICARUS system are exacting – “a small, single-use autonomous aircraft that can fly nearly 100 miles and land within roughly 30 feet of its target [that must] disappear within four hours after landing or 30 minutes after sunrise.”

“Developing an aircraft that can meet the accuracy and range requirement alone is a challenge,” MORSE CEO Andreas Kellas said. “But add in the disappearing requirement and the problem becomes nearly impossible.”

“We combined nearly 100 years of alpine mountaineering knowledge, real-time weather forecasts, digital terrain data, in-situ measurements, and historical avalanche data,”  “It’s an intelligent assimilation system that helps users visually map out and quantify risk.”

The project is yet another example of DARPA’s deep interest in both drones and counter-drone systems.

  • 2014: A DARPA project integrates a “neuromorphic chip” atop a mini-drone that could synthesize the data from its perceptual sensors to complete “intelligent tasks.”
  • 2016: DARPA trialed three drones that can fly autonomously with a target speed of 45 mph while avoiding objects.
  • 2017: DARPA issued a Request for Information (RFI) to “identify promising drone-sensing and -neutralization technologies “that can defeat “self-guided” drones – defined as UAVs “that do not rely on a radio or GPS receiver for their operation.” By creating new anti-drone systems, DARPA hopes to protect high-value military convoys from rogue drone attacks.



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