It’s a giver’s problem. The drone you just sent to drop vital medical supplies to refuges fleeing the war is intercepted by opposing forces. Now, jihadists are making YouTube videos of themselves ripping apart your secret military equipment like they’re tearing open shiny packages. To solve the problem and address the many logistical issues that come from having to actually bring equipment home once it’s used in war, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is funding a new research initiative to develop aircraft that can “fully vanish within within four hours of payload delivery or within 30 minutes of morning civil twilight (assuming a night drop), whichever is earlier,” the agency posted today.
The program is called Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems, or ICARUS, after the boy in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and saw his feather and wax wings melt. But the mission for this ICARUS is far simpler: the Pentagon wants to send drones on one-way trips.
DARPA is seeking to address a “capability gap in eliminating the leave-behind of air vehicles used to deliver supplies to personnel on the ground without requiring pack-out. Such pack-out of these systems is cumbersome, time-consuming, and adds significant weight to the individuals’ loads,” officials wrote in the announcement. The program will last 26 months with about $8 million in funding.
In setting the goal, the agency is building off early success with their Vanishing Programmable Resources, or VAPR, program, as well as some recent breakthroughs in advanced polymer sublimation, which, in chemistry, is the passage of a substance directly from solid form into a gas. In other words, they want a drone that disappears in a cloud of smoke—like a True Blood vampire being kissed by the sun.
The aircraft that they’re looking for will be able to travel 150 kilometers, drop a payload of up to 3 pounds within 10 meters of a pre-programmed landing spot, and be no larger than 3 meters in length.
“Achieving appropriate transience rates without degrading the structural properties may pose a significant technical challenge when engineering existing transient materials, for example sublimating polymers,” DARPA acknowledges.
In other words, making planes sturdy enough to fly and carry payloads but that can also vanish is going to be very hard. Good luck.