Why the Military Is Investing in Paper Airplanes

Disposable drones could save lives—and money

This paper plane could one day change the way the U.S. military handles one-way supply missions. Otherlab

In the midst of disaster, small items like batteries or medical supplies can be a matter of life or death. But what is the safest and most cost-effective way to deliver those items? The U.S. military is investing resources into answering that question. Along they way, they've come up with an unexpected way to pull off dangerous, one-way resupply missions; it's a solution that involves, of all things, paper airplanes.

As IEEE Spectrum’s Evan Ackerman reports, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a new program devoted to creating disposable—and perhaps paper—drones. The DARPA program is called ICARUS (short for Inbound, Controllable, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems), and it’s aimed at creating what the agency calls "vanishing air vehicles that can make precise deliveries of critical supplies and then vaporize into thin air.”

If paper airplanes don’t exactly seem to fit that bill, think again. Otherlab, a San Francisco-based group that specializes in using unusual materials to create unexpected machines, has received DARPA funding for a drone called APSARA (Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply/Actions).

Behind this lengthy acronym is a concept that’s actually kind of ingenious. APSARA drones are mainly cardboard and packing tape with a few very simple hardware elements like a battery and GPS system. The tiny package of electronics helps steer the paper plane toward its target. Once they drop their payload (about 2.20 pounds for a 3.3-foot drone) they eventually disintegrate. Ackerman notes that DARPA is funding a separate program—with a separate acronym, of course—that will hopefully develop electronics that disappear or degrade just like the disposable drone.

The drones even have a tasty twist: they’ll eventually be made from mushrooms. As Tim Wright notes for Smithsonian’s Air & Space, the drones won’t be cardboard forever. Rather, Otherlab intends to eventually make them from mycelium—the mushroom's filamentous offshoots that acts a bit like roots. It’s a renewable resource, and one that Otherlab hopes will make the drone disappear even more rapidly once its work is done.

Paper airplanes? Mushroom messengers? It’s all part of a day’s work for DARPA, which already has plans for everything from fairy tale-inspired drone swarms to self-steering bullets. The projects may seem futuristic—even esoteric. But they’re all built with safety in mind. Whether or not cardboard or mushroom drones ever make it to the battlefield, the future of warfare is shaping up to be strange indeed.

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