The octocopter flew about a thousand feet up into the sunny California sky carrying what looked like a miniature stealth fighter jet replica made from cardboard. Then the copter released the unusual paper plane. As the plane approached the ground, it appeared to steer itself. Well, that's clearly not a toy.
This inexpensive paper plane is actually a functional drone designed to make targeted one-way supply deliveries for humanitarian and disaster relief. It was created by a dedicated team at San Francisco-based Otherlab, a combination research group and startup incubator.
Otherlab's team, led by Mikell Taylor, made the drone in response to a DARPA call for disappearing unmanned systems as part of the agency's Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) program. It's designed to land within about a 33-foot (10-meter) radius of a pre-programmed GPS spot.
Currently, dropping emergency supplies like blood and vaccines from the air is messy and inefficient with plenty of loss, Taylor explained. Sending regular drones is expensive because they have a bad habit of crashing and turning into trash. Airdropped cargo attached to a parachute can break apart in mid-air, land in a pond or end up in the wrong hands.
"DARPA was interested specifically in something that could degrade fairly quickly so when you deliver your supplies with a hundred of these, you don't have drones littering the ground for the next 20 years," Taylor said. To that end, her team constructed the body from flexible cellulose-based material. Inside were off-the-shelf electronics, although DARPA has a separate program for electronics that dissolve on impact.