Intelligent Machines

Plywood Drones Could Help the Marines Safely Deliver Supplies

A cheap, disposable glider that can carry 700-pound payloads could fly one-way cargo missions.

EVAN ACKERMAN | IEEE SPECTRUM

What’s made from plywood, a handful of metal fixings, and some hobbyist electronics? Not your child’s next school project, but a prototype drone being tested by the U.S. Marines.

IEEE Spectrum reports that the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is developing a new drone designed to carry payloads of up to 700 pounds. But unlike many military drones that trade affordability for war zone smarts, this aircraft—known as TACAD, or Tactical Air Delivery—could be made for as little as $1,500 using hardware that you might have lying around on your own workbench. The idea: it won’t matter if it’s ever recovered or not.

Such cost savings are made possible by several design choices. First, the drone is unpowered: dropped from an airplane, it can glide for tens of miles without motors or large power sources. Second, it makes use of cheap off-the-shelf electronics like GPS units, which have been made super-affordable by the proliferation of smartphone technology. Third, and most simply, its frame is made from basic materials like plywood and metal brackets.

It’s not the only disposable drone that the military is interested in. San Francisco-based Otherlab is developing much smaller prototype glider drones made of cardboard, which currently carry a couple of pounds of payload but could feasibly be scaled up to carry 20 pounds or more. Clearly both drones serve very different purposes: Otherlab’s could quickly deliver something small, like medicines or a communications device, while TACAD could haul food, water, or fuel.

But both allow humans to step back even further from the dangerous job of getting supplies to the front line. And that has to be worth the cost of a downed drone or two.

(Read more: IEEE Spectrum, “These Paper Drones Are Built for One-Way Missions”)

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