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These paper-airplane drones may one day save your life

DARPA is funding autonomous cardboard airplanes that can carry medical supplies.


Drones make a lot of sense when delivering things in an emergency to areas with unreliable road conditions, especially to places where people can’t go — like regions that are under quarantine and in need of medical supplies.

The problem, though, is that drones are also expensive, and they can only travel a distance that will allow the aircraft to maintain enough battery life to turn around and come back, essentially cutting in half the distance they can cover.

But what if the drones didn’t have to come back — because they were disposable?

A new research project funded by DARPA, the United States military’s experimental technology arm, has developed an autonomous drone made out of cardboard that can fly twice the distance of any fixed-range aircraft because it’s disposable. The drone only goes one way.

“When transporting vaccines or other medical supplies, the more you can pack onto the drone, the more relief you can supply,” said Star Simpson, an engineer at Otherlab, the group that’s building the new paper drone. If you don’t haul batteries for a return trip, you can pack more onto the drone, says Simpson.


The autonomous disposable paper drone flies like a glider, meaning it has no motor on board. It does have a small computer, as well as sensors that are programed to adjust the aircraft’s control surfaces, like on its wings or rudder, that determine where the aircraft will travel and land.

The research and development of the paper aircraft is funded through DARPA’s Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems program, or ICARUS, which seeks to develop “vanishing” aircraft that “can make precise deliveries of critical supplies and vaporize into thin air,” according to DARPA’s project description.

Since these autonomous gliders don’t have a motor, they need to be launched from a moving aircraft, like a plane. But rather than being dropped from a plane with a parachute, the paper glider designed by Otherlab flies on its own exactly to the location it's programed to reach.

Otherlab is also collaborating with a biology research firm to experiment with building the drone out of a mushroom-based material that can biodegrade, says Simpson.

ICARUS is part of DARPA’s larger Vanishing Programmable Resources initiative, which funds research into hardware that can dissolve and become unusable when triggered.

Research from DARPA has gone on to spur whole industries. In 2004, DARPA hosted the first grand challenge for autonomous vehicles, for example, which soon led to a race to develop self-driving robotic car systems currently being tested by companies like Google and Tesla. Decades ago, DARPA research developed the packet-switching method that became the foundation of the modern internet.

Watch a video demonstrating dissolving glass developed by PARC, a Xerox research and development company that has been a recipient of funding under DARPA’s VAPR program.

Update: Star Simpson’s title has been amended to reflect that she is not an aerodynamicist.

This article originally appeared on

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