Future Tense

DARPA Wants to Create Delivery Vehicles That Vanish After Dropping Off Their Payload

Self-destructing materials.

Image from DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is known for investigating radical and even seemingly laughable ideas like brain-computer interfaces or software that can run for hundreds of years. And the agency’s latest project, announced Friday, is certainly out there. The idea is to create vehicles that get dropped out of aircraft, complete a delivery, and then disappear into thin air. What the …

DARPA admits that this “sounds like an engineering fantasy, or maybe an episode from Mission Impossible,” but for two years the agency has been working on its Vanishing Programmable Resources program, which has made progress developing disappearing materials for electronics. Now the Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems initiative will be funded with about $8 million to work on changing Icarus’ reputation from foolhardy to ingenious.

The delivery vehicles are basically drones, except they rely on gravity to get where they need to go instead of having any type of on-board power. And once they deliver the cargo to the ground, they melt away. The motivation for both projects is to protect the intellectual property behind U.S. government-developed technology so if a vehicle or electronic device is left behind, it disappears before adversaries can evaluate it.

DARPA says that ICARUS vehicles would be used, for example, to deliver “food or medical supplies to an isolated village,” but you can see how they would also be useful for moving more, um, intense war technology. Troy Olsson, the DARPA program manager leading both projects, said in a statement, “Our partners in the VAPR program are developing a lot of structurally sound transient materials whose mechanical properties have exceeded our expectations. … In discussions with colleagues, we were able to identify a capability gap that we decided was worth trying to close.”

Currently, one of the effort’s most successful inventions is a polymer material that can be triggered to turn from a solid into a gas. Another technology allows glass to shatter into tiny fragments at a controlled time. The ICARUS project will investigate methods for controlling vehicle flight paths and landings, while attempting to scale and expand the use of disappearing materials. Even knowing the progress DARPA has made, it’s still hard to imagine that such a technology could ever really function. If the agency succeeds, it’ll be a lot more badass than Mission: Impossible.