But unlike Amazon’s drone, the military’s automaton would self-destruct after dropping off its goods—by shattering or essentially dissolving into thin air.
The goal is twofold: to supply far-flung commandos and other hard-to-reach customers, and to keep high-tech drones from falling into enemy hands, thus betraying American technological secrets and potentially giving up the locations of U.S. troops.
The fringe-science Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is overseeing the two-year, $8 million Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems effort. Yes, the acronym is ICARUS, a reference to the Greek myth about the son of a master craftsman who flew too close to the sun in homemade wings, which melted and sent him plunging to his doom.
“DARPA seeks proposals for the design and prototyping of vanishing air delivery vehicles capable of precise, gentle drops of small payloads,” the agency explained in an Oct. 9 solicitation on a federal contracting website. “These precision vehicles must be guaranteed to rapidly physically disappear following safe payload delivery.”
The key to this disappearing act is what DARPA calls “ephemeral materials”—polymers that can sublimate from solid to gas and special glasses that shatter on command. The agency began working on ephemeral materials in 2013 as part of the Vanishing Programmable Resources initiative, or VAPR.
“Our partners in the VAPR program are developing a lot of structurally sound transient materials whose mechanical properties have exceeded our expectations,” DARPA program manager Troy Olsson, who oversees VAPR and ICARUS, said in a government release. “And that led to the question, ‘What sorts of things would be even more useful if they disappeared right after we used them?’”
It’s no surprise that DARPA wants disappearing cargo drones. With the winding down of large-scale U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon strategy relies more and more on small teams of Special Operations Forces penetrating deep behind enemy lines to rescue hostages and capture or kill militants.
On Oct. 22, the Pentagon announced that its commandos and Kurdish allies had rescued 70 hostages from ISIS terrorists in northern Iraq. One American died during the raid.
Operations behind enemy lines can pose a supply problem. It’s not for nothing that Special Operations Command was among the first U.S. military organizations to embrace cargo drones capable of schlepping cargo a great distance over hostile territory without putting a human pilot at risk. In 2003, SOCOM bought its first SnowGoose supply-bots from Canadian company Mobility Integrated Systems Technology.
Essentially a cluster of cargo bins attached to a simple propeller motor, a guidance system and a parafoil wing, the 10-foot-long SnowGoose can launch from an airplane or truck and haul 600 pounds of supplies a distance of 150 miles.
But with a top speed of just 35 miles per hour, the SnowGoose is vulnerable. In 2006, insurgents shot up a SnowGoose cruising over Haditha in northwest Iraq, sending it crashing down on someone’s house. Marines scrambled to set up a cordon around the stricken drone to keep it out of enemy hands.
But plenty of other American drones have crashed behind enemy lines and become playthings of foreign propagandists—most notably the U.S. Air Force RQ-170 stealth spy drone that tumbled mostly intact onto the Iran-Afghanistan border in 2011 and soon became a fixture in Iranian military parades. Tehran’s engineers also got to work copying the radar-evading robot.
If ICARUS works as planned, future U.S. drones could complete their missions, then shatter or turn into gas. It’ll be like they were never there to begin with, plausibly deniable just like the Special Operations Forces they’re being designed to support.