The engineers at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are pursuing an ambitious initiative aimed at developing precision-guided delivery drones that self-destruct and essentially vanish upon releasing their payload. Announced in October of 2015, the Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) program was borne out of the innovations and successes from the Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program established in 2013.
The vision for the ICARUS program is to have unmanned drones approximately 9 feet in size, be released from altitudes up to 35,000 feet and from a distance of up to 93 miles. They would then make precise, gentle drops of various payloads weighting up to 3 lbs and within 33 feet of their intended target via a GPS guidance system. After deploying their payload these drones would then physically vanish, autonomously and completely. The drones’ payloads could be used to assist Special Forces, humanitarian workers, or first responders in the field and could include items such as water, rations, medical supplies, ammunition, batteries, and communication equipment.
You would think this is the stuff straight out of spy movies, but the reality is that to a certain extent, this technology already exists. In its solicitation for vendors for the ICARUS program, DARPA stipulated that any proposed efforts would have to integrate previously engineered vanishing material technologies, known as transient materials, from the VAPR program into an aerodynamic design that would ultimately produce an autonomously vanishing, field-testable prototype vehicle. The engineers in the VAPR program have been able to produce electronic circuits, and other ephemeral materials, that could vanish autonomously or via remote control.
Contracts to begin Phase 1 production of a prototype vehicle were awarded in the summer of 2016 to three primary vendors – Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), DZYNE Technologies, and MORSE Corp. So far, DARPA has awarded $1.8 million in Phase 1 contracts, which involves developing a prototype and its various subsystems. Phase 2 is scheduled to have $1.3 million in contracts awarded for the production of an actual field-testable prototype vehicle.
There are several obvious benefits to deploying devices that use transient materials into the field. Ad-hoc data networks could be established in the field using sensors and other devices to capture and transmit real-time data for a specific duration and no longer. Soldiers and other types of workers would be able to decrease the amount of items they have to personally load out and carry, while at the time having the capability to extend their operational duration in the field. Another benefit of ICARUS would be the ability to eliminate the accumulation of electronic devices in the field, thus lessening the environmental impact resulting from their usage. Even items such as parachutes from airdrops can accumulate and have detrimental effects on the environment and operations being conducted. Lastly, we will have the ability to keep these devices out the hands of our adversaries by eliminating the “potential recovery and use by unauthorized individuals, and compromise of intellectual property and technological advantage”.
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