UAS & Robotics

Delivery drone does its job—and then vanishes?

Resupplying soldiers in austere environments or operating under covert situations—in which their presence under no circumstances must be compromised—can be a challenge. Typically, supply and resupply involves the use of large parachute-based delivery systems, which must then be packed out for reasons of security and environmental concerns.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is turning to unmanned autonomous systems to solve this problem, with the goal of having the systems make their deliveries and then, literally, vanish.

The Inbound, Controlled, Air‐Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems, or ICARUS, program seeks to develop a prototype with autonomous precision for air delivery capable of gently delivering 3-pound payloads to within about 32 feet of a GPS-programmed location, according to a solicitation on FedBizOpps.

The drones under the ICARUS program must also be able to physically vanish, defined by DARPA as “full and complete physical disappearance to the naked eye… of a complete system and its constituent materials—independent of the surrounding environment. Camouflaging schemes, removal or departure of the vehicle, and other approaches that would be described as “technically disappeared” are not of interest to DARPA.”   

Also on DARPA’s non-starter list are strong acids that could endanger intended handlers, explosions and energetic materials that could all be used as transience mechanisms but would produce visible residues.

DARPA sees the ICARUS program as vital to supporting Special Forces, sniper teams and disaster relief units that deploy to difficult places with a minimum of equipment and then might find themselves in need of, say, perishable medicines or other key supplies.  

And while a drone that makes a delivery and then disappears might seem a long shot, the idea of degradable electronics is being explored. DARPA, for instance, in 2013 announced its Vanishing Programmable Resources program, which aims to develop electronics that would degrade when reported lost or in response to a trigger or even just after a certain period of time. The idea is to prevent phones, sensors or medical devices that get left behind on a battlefield from falling into enemy hands. IBM won a $3.4 million contract last year to work on the program.

Researchers at Iowa State University also have reported progress in working with “transient materials” used for electronics, passports or credit cards that could degrade on command

The ICARUS program will cover two phases over a total of 26 months. When ready, the prototypes should be capable of being launched about 93 miles from a landing zone at an altitude of 35,000 feet.  

A proposer’s day will take place Oct. 15 to provide potential partners with information on the program and address questions as well as provide an opportunity for proposers to share their ideas. DARPA outlined three goals for the proposer’s day:

1. To introduce the science and technology community (including industry, academia and government) to the ICARUS program vision and goals.

2. To facilitate interaction between researchers with capabilities and interests relevant to the ICARUS program goals.


3. To encourage and promote teaming arrangements among organizations that have the relevant expertise, research facilities and capabilities for executing research and development responsive to the ICARUS program goals.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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