MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

The Pentagon wants to make self-destructing delivery drones

This message will self-destruct. Actually, it won’t, but if the Pentagon has its way, tomorrow’s drones will.

On Friday, Oct. 9, the United States’ secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced it’s looking for proposals for drones that can fly once and disintegrate once they’d reached their destination. Unlike myriad companies looking into creating durable drones for deliveries, DARPA isn’t interested in drones that can make the trip home.

The program is called ICARUS—short for “Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems.” The name alludes to the Greek myth of a boy who borrowed his inventor dad’s wax-and-feather wings for a joy ride, flew too close to the sun, and fell to his death as the wings melted.

DARPA says it wants to imitate that “material transience,” but with “more uplifting endings.”

The agency offers $8 million in funding for proposals to build drones that could fly into a battlefield or emergency situation and drop off supplies or medical goods, without needing to come home afterward. As Popular Science points out: “Sometimes the best are those that can be easily left behind.”

Single-use drones would likely be cheaper and lighter than the unmanned fliers in use today, and couldn’t be easily recovered and reverse-engineered by other parties. But ICARUS drones must still be able to carry 3 lbs of cargo, cover distances of up 150 km (93 miles) after being dropped from 35,000 ft, and dissolve within 4 hours of landing.

DARPA’s open call comes after the US government’s two-year VAPR program, which showed it was possible to develop self-destructing electrical parts. Now DARPA wants to put those electronics in the sky.

The dissolving VAPR electronics.
The dissolving VAPR electronics. (DARPA)

“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,” Troy Olsson, the program manager on both projects, said in the Oct. 9 press release.

“And that led to the question, ‘What sorts of things would be even more useful if they disappeared right after we used them?’”

Proposals for ICARUS are due to the agency by Nov. 23. Hopefully no entrants’ bids will fall to pieces, unless of course, that’s their plan to succeed.

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