MIT-founded Morse Develops Single-Use Disappearing Drone for DARPA

In 2015, DARPA challenged research teams to develop a disintegrating drone. MIT-founded Morse Corp. won the bid.

DARPA, the Pentagon’s world-renowned Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for experimental tech, challenged researchers in 2015 to develop aerial “disappearing delivery vehicles.” The goal was to create drones that would be deployed from an aircraft, deliver their payloads, and literally disappear. Essentially, there’d be nothing left of the UAV besides the item it was carrying and the small, tennis ball sized guidance system. 

According to Popular Mechanics, DARPA granted the MIT-founded Morse Corp. its requested $8 million in funding to develop the Icarus drone in 2016. If you’re wondering whether that’s just a perfect name for a drone that eventually dissolves because of the sun or if it’s an acronym, well, both. Let’s take a closer look at the Morse Corp. Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems project.

According to MIT, when Morse, which stands for Mission-Oriented Rapid-Solution Engineering, first partnered with the Department of Defense in 2016, it was focused on developing an avalanche prediction app intended to help soldiers keep away from potential disaster zones. Within the same year, however, the research team began working on its promise to create a disappearing drone that could fly 100 miles, land within 30 feet of its target, and dissolve within four hours or within 30 minutes of the sun rising. 

Here’s what that dissolving material looks like during disintegration.

The dissolving polymer material, mid-disintegration due to heat and/or sunshine., MIT/Slice

Morse CEO Andreas Kellas admitted that this is anything but easy. 

“Developing an aircraft that can meet the accuracy and range requirement alone is a challenge,” said Kellas. “But add in the disappearing requirement and the problem becomes nearly impossible. That’s when you have to apply the MIT mentality: be creative, tenacious, and figure out how to make the impossible happen,” he added. One year later, and Icarus has reached “advanced research stage,” bringing the once seemingly impossible task closer to reality.

You might be wondering what the functional purpose is, of a drone that’ll vanish without a trace. According to MIT, DARPA was keen on producing such UAVs in order to deliver important payloads such as antivenom or plasma, as well as tools to people in remote areas or dangerous territories where detection of drones could further the threat of reprisals. 

Kellas explains, “Our warfighters and those of our allies often operate in forward areas where their discovery would compromise their safety. This system would enable the resupply of lifesaving antivenin, blood transfusion kit, and other critical items without compromising their position.”

So what are Icarus drones made of? Most importantly, these UAVs need to be extremely lightweight, which was accomplished by using a film that has structural integrity but doesn’t weigh the drone down. According to MIT, the guidance system required to make this thing autonomous is embedded within the film and is smaller than a tennis ball. The polymers that comprise the rest of the drone are highly sensitive to sunlight and heat, causing them to dissolve into liquid after a short amount of exposure time. Ultimately, only the guidance system and the payload itself remain. Pretty impressive, don’t you think?

Let’s take a closer look at what an Icarus looks like upon disintegration.

The remaining guidance system of an Icarus drone, with the dissolved polymers surrounding it., MIT/Slice

This is all highly impressive on an engineering and physics-based analysis. The idea that something could initially seem virtually impossible, but become reality a few years later due to the right kind of funding and support, is an incredible testament to human ability. Though the practical use of an Icarus drone may seem limited to some at this stage, people will most certainly find plenty of reasons to utilize this kind of UAV. Hindsight is 20/20, while the foresight required to develop this is usually left to cutting-edge research teams like these.