Industrial Paper Airplanes for Autonomous Aerial Delivery
Press Release January 12, 2017
Otherlab (San Francisco) — What do you do when you need to supply goods where there are no roads? A team of engineering researchers at Otherlab, a cutting-edge engineering R&D laboratory in San Francisco's Mission District, have received DARPA funding to develop an unprecedented and perhaps surprising approach: the world's most advanced industrial paper airplanes.
Existing autonomous supply vehicles have a multitude of limitations, including landing accuracy, cost, and a need to recover the system after deployment. Resupply systems such as parachute or UAV-based solutions use expensive vehicles that must be retrieved. The battery capacity required for return trips displaces payload capacity, the vehicles are costly to mass produce, and may require transport of heavy launch/land infrastructure.
DARPA's Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) program, led by program manager Dr. Roy (Troy) Olsson, seeks to eliminate those functional restrictions by creating vehicles capable of making precise deliveries of critical supplies which then vanish into thin air. As recipients of an ICARUS seedling effort, Otherlab has developed heavy-duty cardboard gliders which can deliver supplies and then disappear in a span of days. These gliders, while capable of re-use, are designed to be expendable and biodegradable.
The Otherlab system, the Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions (APSARA), pairs advanced computational design techniques with low-cost fabrication methods for rapid airframe development. The designs are adaptable to mission-specific payloads across a range of production scales. APSARA vehicles have a long shelf-life, can be cheaply assembled, and flat-pack for shipping, to be folded into form when needed. APSARAs are customizable, can be assembled in theater, and benefit from being constructed from a low-cost, high-availability material.
APSARAs are ideal for delivering humanitarian payloads to the most remote areas. Capable of carrying low thermal loss canisters and medically sensitive fluids, APSARAs can transport blood and vaccines – often most critically needed in regions with undeveloped road and runway infrastructure.
They may also enable the delivery of other equipment, such as batteries, to specific locations. APSARAs enable distributed delivery with precise landings, solving the “last leg” problem for battlefield or low-infrastructure locations, and reducing supply chain vulnerability.
In one operational concept, a C-17 (or C-130) could be equipped with several hundred APSARA gliders, each loaded with critical medical supplies and preprogrammed with delivery coordinates. The combined range of the large transport and the gliders deployed from it would allow the single airplane to conduct delivery operations covering an area the size of California.