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DARPA ICARUS develops self destructing drones that make precise deliveries of critical supplies and then vaporize into thin air

A Chinese navy submarine rescue vessel launched a small boat and seized the US drone which the Pentagon also called an “ocean glider.”  The Pentagon said the Chinese ship ignored repeated demands to return the vehicle from the USNS Bowditch. One week later the Chinese government has returned the US underwater drone it siezed in the South China Sea, according to Chinese and US officials. The Pentagon said the United States would continue to investigate the “unlawful” seizure, which took place in international waters about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines.


In 2014, Iran claimed to have developed a stealth drone which it says is copy of US RQ-170 Sentinel, made by Lockheed Martin. “The drone was brought down by the Iranian Armed Forces’ electronic warfare unit which commandeered the aircraft and safely landed it,” the Iranian Tasnim News Agency reported. Late 2014, Iran announced it had “managed to reverse engineer most parts” of the drone, according to the Tasnim report. In 2011, U.S. “stealth” Blackhawk helicopter that crashed during the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden was given access to China by Pakistan despite explicit requests from the CIA not to, the Financial Times reported.


At the 2019 Defense News Conference on September 4, acting United States Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan announced a number of “controversial changes” would be taking place within his military branch’s “future budgets.” “We are investing in advanced standoff weapons; low-cost, single-use aircraft; and technologies such as directed energy and hypersonics,” he said during the conference on Wednesday.


U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA ) had launched  “Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems” (ICARUS)  program in 2015  to prevent incidents like this from happening. The goal was to create drones that would be deployed from an aircraft, deliver their payloads, and literally disappear.


If ICARUS is successful, small items, including batteries, communications devices, or medical supplies – especially those requiring maintenance of a cold chain – could be supplied/resupplied using low-cost, disposable aircraft to military or humanitarian assistance teams operating in difficult-to-access areas.


The program builds on recent innovations in its two-year-old Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program, which has developed self-destructing electronic components. “Our VAPR program partners are developing structurally sound transient materials with mechanical properties that exceeded our expectations,” says Troy Olsson, program manager of VAPR and ICARUS for DARPA.

DARPA’s Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) program

Today the supply and re-supply of small military and civilian teams in rough terrain, such as sniper teams and Special Forces, requires large parachute-delivery systems that must be packed-out after payload delivery for security and environmental concerns. Vanishing precision-delivery vehicles would enable efficient resupply to teams in distributed locations, eliminate the need to pack-out delivery parachutes, and deliver time-critical humanitarian supplies to personnel serving in remote or dangerous areas, DARPA officials say.


The ICARUS program address these challenges by calling for the design, prototype development and demonstration of autonomous air-delivery vehicles capable of delivering intact a 3-pound payload with 10 meters accuracy with respect to a GPS-programmed location. Within hours of payload delivery, the vehicle, which should be no more than 3 meters in its longest dimension, must physically vanish. The 26-month program will culminate in a final Government field-test of fully vanishing, precision air-delivery prototypes.


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.


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 unit’s pack-out-burden.


Within a larger context, the ICARUS program addresses the fundamental question of whether large, functional structures can be deliberately designed to disappear soon after their mission is completed. If this capability can be developed, it could have impacts in many core areas where a leave-behind would have environmental and/or unintended logistical consequences.


The primary technical categories of the ICARUS program are aerodynamics and materials. It will take creative aerodynamic design and materials engineering to minimize overall capability tradeoffs that the interplay of these two interacting arenas is likely to require. For example, engineering materials that are stable enough to meet flight specifications, yet unstable enough to undergo the vanishing requirement, is a tall order.


Among the ephemeral materials so far have been developed are small polymer panels that sublimate directly from a solid phase to a gas phase, and electronics-bearing glass strips with high-stress inner anatomies that can be readily triggered to shatter into ultra-fine particles after use.


“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.”



DARPA  awarded contracts to three companies the MORSECORP, PARC, and DZYNE to develop a vanishing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) able to deliver a small package no larger than 3 pounds to a GPS-programmed location with 33-foot accuracy. The vanishing air vehicles, which the companies will develop to operate at night that can complete their mission like making precise deliveries of critical supplies and then  must be able to vanish within four hours of landing, leaving remnants no larger than 100 microns — or about the width of a human hair.


Developed under contract through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) ICARUS program, Ghost is a small, robotic cargo glider that will allow precision supply drops for those in the field. Currently, supply to small military or civilian teams in difficult-to-access territory requires large, parachute-based systems that must be carried out or otherwise disposed of, for operational security and environmental concerns. It can be challenging to get a parachute-based system to deliver cargo precisely in an area surrounded by trees or buildings. The Ghost air vehicle uses a novel air vehicle design and flight control methodology to eliminate these challenges.


Georgia Institute of Technology develops Stealth glider made out of special polymer self-destructs in sunlight

Engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new type of plastic that can form flexible sheets and tough mechanical parts—then disappear in minutes to hours when hit by ultraviolet light or temperatures above 176 degrees Fahrenheit. Previous efforts to make plastics that self-destruct on command have had trouble preventing such materials from disintegrating at room temperature. But the Georgia Tech team’s new substance can remain stable for years, as long as it shuns the sun.


To make durable plastics that quickly destruct on command, Kohl’s team and some other researchers have turned to a molecule called poly(phthalaldehyde) (PPHA). Like all polymers, this one splits up into its building blocks when heated above a certain temperature. But in contrast to the plastics used in bottles and packaging, which only break down at very high heat, PPHA unravels while still below room temperature. This property makes it easy to break down but hard to stabilize.


These plastics could also be used to make environmental and medical sensors that dissolve after collecting data or temporary adhesives that come unstuck with the aid of a heat gun. “They are great for applications where you want things to disappear right away,” says Paul Kohl, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor at Georgia Tech, who presented his team’s latest research on Monday at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in San Diego.


To trick PPHA into being pseudo stable, Kohl and his colleagues linked the chain into a circle. “It only depolymerizes from the end inward,” Kohl says. With its tips linked together, the chain does not break down as easily. “It’s like peeling a banana,” Kohl explains. “It’s hard to peel from the middle.” Although the circle structure keeps the modified PPHA from breaking down at a typical room temperature, if a trigger snips just one bond, “the whole thing instantly depolymerizes and completely falls apart,” he says.


In order to trigger the polymer’s undoing on command, the researchers mixed in a compound that becomes acidic in the presence of sunlight and then attacks PPHA bonds. And to slow down the speed of this degradation—thus giving a simple flying machine such as a glider enough time to complete its mission—they added additional compounds that react with and weaken the acid.


Marek Urban at Clemson University in South Carolina says the chemical reactions involved in the depolymerisation are not novel, but this covert intelligence application may be. But he says there may be a problem with the residue left behind after the polymer disappears. “My question is, does this system leave you with some monomers you didn’t start with? This could be extremely harmful because if you don’t know what those monomers are as a result, you could create another problem,” says Urban.


Kohl says he and his team have already made a glider with a six-foot wingspan from the material. It can only carry objects weighing about 1 kilogram, so it could only be used to covertly transport objects, not people, for the moment. The glider would have to travel under cover of darkness to avoid disintegrating in flight.


DARPA has already used the plastic to make light, strong gliders and parachutes. In October 2018 the agency field-tested one of these vehicles: dropped from a high-altitude balloon at night, a glider successfully delivered a three-pound package to a spot 100 miles away. After four hours in the sun, it vanished, leaving behind nothing but an oily smudge on the ground. Kohl says the plastic could dissolve even faster under a glaring midday sun, in some cases taking as little as five minutes.



Other lab’s Swarms of Disposable Drones Will Make Critical Deliveries and Then Vanish

As recipients of an ICARUS seedling effort, Otherlab has developed heavy-duty cardboard gliders which can deliver supplies and then disappear in a span of days. These gliders, while capable of re-use, are designed to be expendable and biodegradable.


The Otherlab system, the Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions (APSARA), pairs advanced computational design techniques with low-cost fabrication methods for rapid airframe development. The designs are adaptable to mission-specific payloads across a range of production scales. APSARA vehicles have a long shelf-life, can be cheaply assembled, and flat-pack for shipping, to be folded into form when needed. APSARAs are customizable, can be assembled in theater, and benefit from being constructed from a low-cost, high-availability material.


APSARAs are ideal for delivering humanitarian payloads to the most remote areas. Capable of carrying low thermal loss canisters and medically sensitive fluids, APSARAs can transport blood and vaccines – often most critically needed in regions with undeveloped road and runway infrastructure.


They may also enable the delivery of other equipment, such as batteries, to specific locations. APSARAs enable distributed delivery with precise landings, solving the “last leg” problem for battlefield or low-infrastructure locations, and reducing supply chain vulnerability.


In one operational concept, a C-17 (or C-130) could be equipped with several hundred APSARA gliders, each loaded with critical medical supplies and preprogrammed with delivery coordinates. The combined range of the large transport and the gliders deployed from it would allow the single airplane to conduct delivery operations covering an area the size of California.


According to Star Simpson, Otherlab’s APSARA project engineer, “we used cardboard as a prototyping material because it is easy to work with and resembled mycelium, the mushroom-based material that we intend for the future product.” Like mushrooms, Simpson says the design can grow. “We can currently carry up to a one-kilogram payload, and we know we can pretty directly scale the airplane up to about an 8-foot wingspan and carry 10 kilograms with no problems.”Otherlab has experimented with a variety of landing techniques, but for now, they’ve settled on a spiral down to a controlled crash landing.


DZYNE Technologies developing technology advances in DARPA’s ICAURS project

Using its Ghost expendable glider, DZYNE flight testing  proved aerodynamics and controls necessary for autonomous delivery of a small, three-pound payload. Developed under contract through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) ICARUS program, Ghost is a small, robotic cargo glider that will allow precision supply drops for those in the field. Currently, supply to small military or civilian teams in difficult-to-access territory requires large, parachute-based systems that must be carried out or otherwise disposed of, for operational security and environmental concerns. It can be challenging to get a parachute-based system to deliver cargo precisely in an area surrounded by trees or buildings. The Ghost air vehicle uses a novel air vehicle design and flight control methodology to eliminate these challenges.


The Ghost demonstration took place July 17-19, and featured gliders built from a non-vanishing material that mimics the physical properties of vanishing materials. The gliders were dropped from balloons to conduct 15-mile, cross-country flights, ending with a steep, precision-guided approach to a defined target.


“The successful flight testing of the Ghost air vehicle demonstrates DZYNE Technologies’ exceptional capability in designing a purpose-built unmanned aircraft to fulfill a challenging mission profile,” said Darrell Gillette, DZYNE Technologies CEO.


Patrick Wright, Ghost Program Manager, remarked, “This is exciting for DZYNE because Ghost becomes the starting point for a whole family of autonomous cargo delivery systems.” DZYNE is developing manufacturing processes that will allow Ghost gliders to be built using the vanishing structural materials developed under the DARPA Vanishing Programmable Resources program (VAPR).


MIT-founded Morse Develops Single-Use Disappearing Drone for DARPA

According to MIT,  the  Morse, which stands for Mission-Oriented Rapid-Solution Engineering,  began working on its promise to create a disappearing drone that could fly 100 miles, land within 30 feet of its target, and dissolve within four hours or within 30 minutes of the sun rising.


Morse CEO Andreas Kellas admitted that this is anything but easy. “Developing an aircraft that can meet the accuracy and range requirement alone is a challenge,” said Kellas. “But add in the disappearing requirement and the problem becomes nearly impossible. That’s when you have to apply the MIT mentality: be creative, tenacious, and figure out how to make the impossible happen,” he added. One year later, and Icarus has reached “advanced research stage,” bringing the once seemingly impossible task closer to reality.


According to MIT, DARPA was keen on producing such UAVs in order to deliver important payloads such as antivenom or plasma, as well as tools to people in remote areas or dangerous territories where detection of drones could further the threat of reprisals.


Kellas explains, “Our warfighters and those of our allies often operate in forward areas where their discovery would compromise their safety. This system would enable the resupply of lifesaving antivenin, blood transfusion kit, and other critical items without compromising their position.”


To make the disappearing drones a reality, MORSE developed a self-flying vehicle that is made from lightweight film that contains a guidance system smaller than a tennis ball. The vehicle is made of specially developed polymers that, when exposed to heat or sunlight, quickly depolymerize, or disintegrate, into a clear liquid substance, leaving only the guidance system and delivered supplies upon landing.


The MORSE team demonstrated a successful official high altitude flight test earlier this summer, followed by a successful depolymerization demo of its disappearing material.


NASA invents self-destructing bio-drone made of fungus and bacteria

A biodegradable drone made out of fungus, bacteria and wasp spit built by NASA-affiliated scientists may pave the way for future spyware, which would simply self-destruct if it crashes, leaving behind only minute remnants. The biological drone would simply melt away, according to its designers. “No one would know if you’d spilled some sugar water or if there’d been an airplane there,” Lynn Rothschild of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California told New Scientist. The model was conceived by a group of scientists from across Stanford, Brown and Spelman College.


The mushroom-like substance known as mycelium, which makes up the chassis of the drone, is being hailed as the new plastic — a plastic that has the advantage of degrading quickly. The team grew cellulose “leather” to coat the fungal body of the flying craft and then covered the sheets with proteins sourced from the saliva of paper wasps — a water resistant material that the insects  use to gel their nests together and waterproof them.  The circuits are printed from silver nanoparticle ink in an effort to make the machine as biodegradable as possible.


Despite a heavy preponderance of biological parts, the team said the project had its limits.  “There are definitely parts that can’t be replaced by biology, ” said Stanford University’s Raman Nelakanti. However, at present key components like electronics, propellers and batteries are not bio-degradable.
The team has expressed a desire to develop sensors made out of E. coli bacteria. While the parts degrade naturally, the team also experimented with enzymes that would help the drone self-destruct, breaking it down further on impact. Creating a drone that does not infect the environment has been another challenge for the team. “If you have living organisms acting as biosensors and the plane crashes, there certainly could be problems as the plane interacts with the environment,” Rothschild said.
The team said that ultimately the drone could be sent into areas where it might not be expected to return such as wildfires or nuclear accidents, sending data and never coming back.






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