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This Cardboard Emergency Drone Is Designed Not To Come Back

Drones are expensive and you usually want them back, which can limit when you use them. This new one is cheap enough to deliver a payload without needing to return.

When roads are dangerous, difficult, or non-existent, drones are an obvious alternative to trucks or conventional aircraft. Lightweight and flexible, these autonomous little creatures can go where vehicles fear-to-tread, and where planes may be too costly. But normally the drones are precious enough that you want them to return intact; they’re not expendable enough to be disposable.

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A project at Otherlab, a well-known skunkworks in San Francisco, is proposing drones that are altogether one-use. The UAVs are made of paper and designed for kamikaze flight. Once their payload is delivered, they’re meant to wither to nothing.

“Disposable aircraft are great when you’re trying to get to somewhere off the beaten path,” says Star Simpson, one of the engineers behind the project. “You would use this when you might not want it back, or you might not want to put the effort into getting it back.”

Otherlab’s prototype glider is three feet wide and made of cardboard. Simpson says a final version might be as long as eight feet and made from a more biodegradable material, like mushroom-derived mycelium, which is now used in packaging and even to make furniture.

The project has received funding from DARPA, the military’s famous technology research agency. It’s looking to develop both “unrecoverable” aircraft and electronic systems that vanish.

The disposable drones would be released in waves from a cargo transport, and, given sufficient altitude, could travel 50 miles in any direction, Simpson says. They could even be flat-packed and assembled just before launch. With no motor parts, they can carry more supplies, perhaps blood, vaccines or other drugs for underserved regions.

“There’s a big cost in letting something go and going to fetch it,” says Simpson. “This is saying ‘we’re not going to worry about it.’ it’s going to take care of itself and it’s going to disappear. That’s the advantage.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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