WHEN MOST PEOPLE hear the word “drone” they either think of uncrewed military aircraft or those multi-rotor mini-copters that could one day deliver packages to your doorstep. But what if the package is the plane? That’s the idea behind the Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions drone, a cardboard glider that carries about two pounds of cargo.
“It looks like a pizza box that’s been shaped into a wing,” says Star Simpson, an engineer at San Francisco robotics company Otherlab. Her team designed and built Apsara with funding from Darpa, which challenged them to develop a single-use delivery vehicle for emergency scenarios. But, Darpa being Darpa, there was a twist: The drones had to not only carry a small payload and land where you told them to—once they were on the ground, they had to disappear.
Cardboard was an obvious choice. It’s cheap, lightweight, and can decompose in a matter of months. Plus, the material has a proven track record among drone hobbyists. The Apsara advances cardboard-drone design with something Simpson calls origami thinking; her team’s three-foot-wide drone is made of scored and laser-cut cardboard sheets that take about an hour to fold and tape together. Simpson calls it the world’s most functional paper airplane.
Cardboard is the first step on the path toward drones that degrade quickly and completely. The Apsara’s final design actually calls for a mushroom-based material called mycelium, which Simpson says should decompose in a matter of days, not months. The next trick: Make the drone’s electronics disappear. Today, the Apsara uses a GPS unit and two wing-flap motors to bring it within 50 feet of a preprogrammed landing spot, but Darpa has another project devoted to ephemeral electronics that could soon allow it to leave almost no trace.
That’s important. The Apsara is designed to be deployed by the hundreds or thousands, to deliver supplies during a humanitarian crisis, or in a battle’s aftermath. For security and ecological reasons alike, the last thing anyone wants is a landscape covered in drone bits.
Now an Otherlab spin-off company called Everfly is hoping to refine the prototype for use by humanitarian groups like the Red Cross or MSF. Simpson thinks Everfly can scale the design to carry a 22-pound payload (that’s about 120 Clif bars). While it may not be as sexy as a whirring dronecarrying your UPS package, we bet anyone in dire straits would be more than happy to see a mushroom wing full of energy bars gently floating in for a landing.