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DARPA develops disappearing delivery drones for emergencies

The Icarus project aims to develop drones which vanish into thin air after their missions are complete.

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DARPA

DARPA has revealed plans to create drones which disappear after delivering food or medical supplies to remote areas.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)'s Project Icarus, alluding to the mythological character who fell to earth after his wax-and-leather wings melted when flying too close to the sun, is intended to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that will disintegrate in the same manner once their missions are over.

Announced this month, the US research agency said Project Icarus will create a fleet of tiny, single-use drones which will deliver emergency supplies -- such as food and medicine -- to remote areas during epidemics or disasters.

However, once their mission is over, each drone will "vanish" after landing thanks to the use of special materials which can transform their state or shatter into mere particles.

Project Icarus is built upon DARPA's Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program, a two-year-old scheme which researches and develops self-destructing electronic components for use in the field by military personnel to prevent valuable technology from being acquired by the other side.

VAPR and ICARUS program manager Troy Olsson says Project VAPR partners have developed materials which could potentially be used in vanishing UAVs.

Materials of interest include small polymer panels which switch from a solid to gas phase and electronics-bearing glass strips which can be triggered to shatter into ultra-fine particles.

Olsson commented:

"With the progress made in VAPR, it became plausible to imagine building larger, more robust structures using these materials for an even wider array of applications. And that led to the question, 'What sorts of things would be even more useful if they disappeared right after we used them?.'

In discussions with colleagues, we were able to identify a capability gap that we decided was worth trying to close."

In military applications, DARPA's drones could be used to take over the burden of water, batteries and medical supply provisions. However, the vanishing UAVs may also be used in future emergencies by delivering good, vaccines, insulin, blood, plasma and other urgent medical supplies to areas hit by disasters such as earthquakes.

DARPA says the option to forget entirely about the remains of delivery vehicles would not only improve logistics in emergency situations and in the military realm, but would also remove the environmental impact of leaving discarded transport vehicle components out in the field.

"Vanishing delivery vehicles could extend military and civilian operational capabilities in extenuating circumstances where currently there is no means to provide additional support," Olsson commented.

"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."

The program is expected to last for 26 months and has a funding pool of approximately $8 million.

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