DARPA ICARUS self-destructing drone
Drones developed by Darpa's Icarus project will be able to physically vanish after a single use DARPA

Drones that self-destruct after one use to prevent them falling into enemy hands are being developed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). The two-year programme builds on a previous one that designed electronics capable of falling apart on command.

The Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (Icarus) – named after the mythological character who flew so close to the sun that his wings melted – developed by the secretive government agency are designed to physically vanish after delivering a single payload. According to Darpa, this will involve a "full and complete physical disappearance to the naked eye".

A prototype of an Icarus drone was described in a recent solicitation on FedBizOpps, detailing how a payload of up to 3lbs (1.4kg) would be delivered to within 32ft (10m) of a GPS-programmed location.

"Following a night drop, the air delivery vehicle must completely, physically disappear within four hours of payload delivery or within 30 minutes after morning civil twilight, whichever is earlier," the solicitation states. "To be considered not visible to the naked eye, Darpa nominally quantifies physical disappearance, or transience, as producing remnants not exceeding 100µm on the longest dimension.

"Critical technical challenges facing the Icarus programme cover two major categories: aerodynamics and materials. Aerodynamic design considerations and the materials engineering capabilities will affect one another and their close interplay will necessitate compromises to overcome trade-offs and achieve final program objectives."

Darpa has committed $8m (£5.2m) to the 26-month project, with the hope that the Icarus drones will be able to deliver perishable supplies like food and medicine to isolated communities and military units in the field.

Icarus programme manager Troy Olsen said: "Inventing transient materials, devising ways of scaling up their production, and combining those challenges with the hard control and aerodynamic requirements to reach the precision and soft-landing specs we need here makes for a challenging and compelling engineering problem."