Cardboard Glider Drones

Evan Ackerman reports about a concept for cardboard glider drones, designed to airdrop deliveries cheaply. The idea is that the drone is disposable and intended to disappear after delivery—like a shipping carton. The stated use case is disaster relief and other cases where you need to deliver supplies with no conventional transport.

The gliders themselves are sort of flat pack cartons that have their own guidance systems. (This is smart packaging taken to another level!) The idea is to be able to fabricate a lot of them really fast when you need to, and not worry about getting them back. Toss them out the back of an airplane, and let them find their way to the target.

The guidance is way more precise than “dumb” air drops, though hardly perfect. The glider is unpowered, which means it is little use in high winds. (Hurricanes and wild fires would not be ideal situations for glider drops.) And, as far as I can tell, the design in autonomous, i.e., not remote guided. That means that it has limited ability for fine tuned guidance. It’ll be able to land in a street or field, but not on a door step—or a moving target such as a convoy.

Looking at the demo, it is clear that this is a quick prototype, with lots of shortcomings. But it surely could be developed for real.

The control logic and so on can be cleaned up and mass produced, probably for pennies. The glider design can be cleaned up and made much simpler. It should basically just “pop up”, like standard shipping cartons. At that point, you could make them by hand, or make a simple machine to crank them out, or even add that to the end of a conveyor belt that feeds the contents.

This demos comes from Otherlab (“which does weird robotics-y stuff with creative materials, among other things” as Ackerman says). The funding is from DARPA, who, of course, is interested in air drops of many kinds, not all of them humanitarian.

When I first saw this, I couldn’t help but worry a bit about possible military or other lethal uses. Do I really want someone dropping nasty packages that glide at me from kilometer away? But I realized that these aren’t terribly sophisticated delivery systems. There are lots of ways to deliver a kilogram of stuff to your house, many of them far more effective than a lightweight drone that will blow off course so easily.

One scenario I can imagine, though, is air dropping covert surveillance devices or mini bots. In this case, the small, unpowered cardboard vehicle is fairly stealthy, and if it dissolves quickly then there would be little sign of the covert landing. So you might drop zillions of sensors, perhaps on little robots that can hide themselves after landing.

Countermeasures? All the classics familiar from DDay will work. Nets, spikes, rough surfaces will be difficult landing areas. Flooded fields. Flame throwers. Birds.  Dogs. Heck, fierce pigs, for all I know.

So, all in all, this is more likely to be and idea of the future of flat pack cartons than it is to be a new weapon.


  1. Evan Ackerman, Swarms of Disposable Drones Will Make Critical Deliveries and Then Vanish, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/drones/otherlab-apsara-aerial-delivery-system
  2. Otherlab, https://otherlab.com/projects

 

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