Natural Selection of Glider Drone Concepts

Evan Ackerman reports about yet another “disposable drone” project, similar to the ‘cardboard drone’ concept from OterhLabs. Great minds move in similar ways, and the U.S. Marines are testing the same concept only larger: plywood gliders. I’m sure there are other variations on this theme in the works, it is an idea whose time has come.

The Marine version (TACAD (TACtical Air Delivery)) is plywood and bolts, plus GPS and guidance. The glider is intended to be launched from an aircraft to glide many kilometers to the recipient. Crash landing within fifty meters or so, the airframe will be discarded.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

One reason that the time has come for this idea is that civilian, hobbyist-grade GPS and small aircraft controllers are widely available and cheap. In a sort of technological “circle of life”, these military technologies moved out to wide use, and developed to the point where they can work as well as special orders, and are, of course, vastly cheaper. They are now being picked up by the military, replacing custom built systems.

Using inexpensive materials is particularly important for unpowered gliders because they cannot fly home. For that matter, they have limited maneuverability, and relatively high probability of mishap. Pushing the cost down makes it a “throw away” craft, worth risking in more situations.

Between the TACAD and Otherlab, we can see that there is a certain evolutionary selection process going on there. The same underlying technology (GPS, digital guidance, stand off air launch) can be realized at a variety of scales. The USMC is planning one with a payload about the size of a microwave, OterhLab’s is smaller. We could imagine both larger and smaller versions, using appropriate materials.

There is a tradeoff here; the smaller the drone, they more of them that can be deployed. Otherlab’s cardboard packages could be dropped by the hundreds, The same aircraft could drop far fewer TACAD sized craft. Depending on the type of delivery, either mode might be better.

There are other tradeoffs related to the size. The OthereLabs is designed to be delivered as a compact flatpack, and also to biodegrade after landing. I imagine that TACAD might be flatpacked, but the initial design has foldable wings for up for compact transport. Flatpack design also enables a sort of just in time, on site construction that may be advantageous for some uses. For example, the plans could be delivered electronically, and constructed from local materials.

This evolutionary radiation of disposable drone gliders is an interesting reprise of military glider technology. At its peak, gliders were widely used for paratroops (for example, the movie “A Bridge Too Far” has some excellent recreations of allied glider operations). Dangerous, defenseless, and limited, gliders were surpassed by other aircraft, especially helicopters. Decades later, the concept of a cargo glider has returned, made possibly by model air crate technology.

  1. Evan Ackerman, U.S. Marines Testing Disposable Delivery Drones, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.


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