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Carnegie Mellon team tapped to help build self-destructing drones for Defense Department

| Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, 11:05 p.m.

It's straight out of a spy movie.

The U.S. military wants drones, gliders or other airborne delivery vehicles to vanish once they safely send supplies or intelligence to troops, aid workers or agents in hostile territory or behind enemy lines.

And researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are working on it.

“If we want to deliver a payload, how would you deliver something to them and then have that delivery vehicle disintegrate?” asked Christopher Bettinger, a CMU associate professor of materials science and biomedical engineering who is working on the project. “It's a fun project, and it's very challenging.”

Bettinger and Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, a CMU professor of chemistry, are part of a team that will work under a $3 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) program, the university announced.

Troy Olsson, DARPA's ICARUS program manager, wrote that the large parachute-based delivery systems used in supply and resupply missions have to be carried out in such a way that the technology won't fall into the wrong hands or leave a mess. ICARUS will allow small items — batteries, communication devices, medical devices or food — to be sent using low-cost, disposable aircraft.

DARPA expects to distribute about $8 million in grants. In June, it awarded a $2.3 million grant to Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center; a $2.9 million grant to DZYNE Technologies, an aircraft design, production and analytics firm headquartered in Arizona; and a $3 million grant to MORSE Corp., an engineering firm in Cambridge, Mass.

CMU and the University of Akron will team up with MORSE Corp.

Bettinger said the military can't just blow up the delivery vehicles — someone might hear the explosion — or burn them — someone might see the flames. Ideas have been floated to make the vehicles out of an edible material and rely on local wildlife to eat them, but that isn't a sure-fire solution, Bettinger said.

Matyjaszewski will create the polymers at the molecular level. Bettinger will concentrate on building the vehicle and figuring out how to make it self-destruct. Bettinger's past work has focused on biomedical devices that can be used to deliver medicine or help patients heal, then dissolve in the body's water.

“The chemistry is different but it's the same kind of idea,” Bettinger said.

The drone or glider must disappear to the naked eye, according to DARPA's requirements. As it breaks down, the remaining pieces can be no larger than 100 microns — about as small as the smallest grains of sand or twice the diameter of a strand of human hair.

“Proposed efforts must integrate engineered vanishing materials into advanced aerodynamic designs to produce an autonomously vanishing, field-testable prototype vehicle by the end of the two-year program,” DARPA's description of the ICARUS program states.

DARPA and the CMU team are optimistic about success. In a post on DARPA's website, Olsson wrote that “it would be nothing more than a fantasy, were it not that the principle behind disappearing materials has already been proven.”

Three years ago, DARPA started its Vanishing Programmable Resources program, or VAPR, to develop self-destructing electronics that, if left behind in battle, can vanish to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Bettinger said his lab started working on dissolving electronics for biomedical purposes six years ago.

“We're leveraging technologies that are decades old in some respects, and some that were developed recently in our lab,” Bettinger said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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