Paper planes aren’t just for passing secret notes across the classroom anymore. Now, they can even save lives.
Otherlab, an engineering research and development lab based in San Francisco, California, has created the world’s most advanced industrial paper airplanes. The paper gliders look almost like stealth fighters, capable of carrying more than two pounds of supplies like blood and vaccines to those in need. And they could totally transform humanitarian aid for people in remote regions.
The project is part of Otherlab’s Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions (APSARA) system, which uses computational design to create low-cost aerial supply vehicles.
The APSARA gliders are made from an inexpensive material called mycelium, designed to be aerodynamic and degradable within a matter of days. For the testing stage, however, Otherlab used heavy-duty cardboard as a similar stand-in. The gliders can also steer themselves, using off-the-shelf electronics built inside (GPS, autopilot, small servomechanisms and a disposable battery).
The drones can hold canisters, “medically sensitive fluids” and batteries, delivering lifesaving items to rural areas without roads, or regions rendered inaccessible by natural disasters or war.
“We designed these to be used in areas where existing infrastructure was insufficient to get critical items — blood, medical supplies and so on — to where they needed to be,” said Mikell Taylor, Otherlab’s team lead for the project.
“We came up with a glider design because it seemed the most efficient for the application,” she said.
Here’s how it works: An aircraft lifts an APSARA glider into the air and transports it to a planned location. Factoring in wind and other data, it then drops the paper drone so it glides down in a spiral motion, hitting a pre-set GPS spot within a 33-foot radius.
People can then unpack the supplies, and the paper airplane will disappear after time due to its mycelium frame, which is a flexible, cellulose-based material. That ensures these kinds of humanitarian missions wouldn’t leave the ground littered with cardboard.
Otherlab offered the concept of a C-17 or C-130 cargo plane carrying hundreds of the gliders preprogrammed with delivery coordinates. The team predicts such an operation, illustrated below, could easily deliver medical supplies to an area the size of California.
Similar efforts already exist, but most autonomous supply vehicles have limitations, such as high cost and a lack of ways to recover them after they’re deployed. Regular drones often crash, vehicles running on heavy batteries can’t carry as much cargo, and supplies airdropped by parachute can drift in the wind, end up in the middle of a lake or ocean, or even get intercepted by other people.
“The biggest difference is the accuracy,” Taylor said. “Because our gliders actually land while carrying the payload, and they can land autonomously within a small radius of a pre-set waypoint, it ensures that whatever you’re sending is getting to the people who need it.”
Otherlab received funding for the project through DARPA’s Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) program, which aims to develop vehicles that can make precise deliveries of critical supplies. Most importantly, DARPA wanted a drone that would “leave no trace,” and the APSARA paper airplane fits the bill. Another DARPA program, Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR), could help develop biodegradable hardware — so even the glider’s electronic insides would disappear, too.
Otherlab has completed its contract with DARPA, and now the team is looking at next steps to produce the gliders.
“We’re looking for partners for the next phase of development,” Taylor said. “We’d love to get these out into the world, delivering good things.”
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