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Watch: The paper-airplane drones that may one day save your life

DARPA-funded disposable drones made from cardboard can be used to carry medicines where people can’t go.


Drones typically aren’t disposable and are fairly expensive, which is why most drones can only go as far as they can maintain battery power to make the return trip home.

A new paper drone, funded by a DARPA research grant, changes that equation.

DARPA, the United States military’s experimental technology arm, awarded a grant to the aerodynamics research group at Otherlab in San Francisco to develop a disposable glider that can be used to ferry medical supplies or other cargo to places where delivery people can’t go.

This is particularly useful in situations where there’s been a disease outbreak and vaccines are urgently needed — or in areas where the road or terrain conditions are so treacherous that it would take far too long for a ground vehicle to make the trek.

The drone isn’t designed to make a return trip. It’s made of cheap paper materials so that it can travel one way and be discarded.

“When transporting vaccines or other medical supplies, the more you can pack onto the drone, the more relief you can supply,” said Star Simpson, one of the engineers working on the project, in an interview earlier this month with Recode. Without the extra battery load needed to send the drone back, Simpson says, the drone can carry more cargo.

These autonomous gliders don’t have a motor, so they need to be launched from a moving aircraft, like another drone, as shown in the video.

The paper glider is able to fly on its own to the location it's programmed to travel to, thanks to a small computer on board, as well as sensors that are programmed to adjust the aircraft’s control surfaces, like its wings or rudder, to determine where it will fly and eventually land.

These cardboard drones come in a flat pack and are designed so that anyone can assemble them — no engineering background required. That means in a hospital setting, for example, any staff member can prepare the aircraft and load it with medical supplies to deliver to areas in need.

Update: Otherlab would not disclose the amount of its DARPA grant.

This article originally appeared on

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