Carnegie Mellon University

concept drawing of disintegrating polymers

August 05, 2016

Researchers Developing Disappearing Airborne Delivery Device

Lisa Kulik
  • College of Engineering
  • 412-268-5444
Jocelyn Duffy
  • Mellon College of Science
  • 412-268-9982

PITTSBURGH—A device that disappears on command after making a clandestine delivery might sound like something from a spy novel, but researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are working to make such spy tech a reality.

Researchers Christopher Bettinger and Krzysztof Matyjaszewski are part of a team receiving a $3 million grant from DARPA’s ICARUS program, which seeks to develop vanishing drones and devices for the military and intelligence communities.

Such devices could keep deployed personnel safe by delivering needed items (like small computers or medical supplies) without alerting others or allowing technology and materials to fall into hostile hands. Ultimately, these devices would increase the chances of agents and soldiers completing their missions successfully.

The Carnegie Mellon researchers are designing special polymers for single-use parachutes that will disintegrate on demand in response to an electrical trigger.

The challenges are significant. The material must be durable enough to withstand the drop from an airplane, carry a load of several pounds, navigate autonomously to a precise location, handle the impact of landing, and remain intact until the recipient triggers it to dissolve.

Matyjaszewski, a professor of chemistry, is working to tackle the problem at the molecular level. In order for the polymers in the parachute to disintegrate on demand, a chemical reaction must occur that causes depolymerization, the act of polymers breaking down into individual monomers.

Even once success is achieved in the test tube, additional obstacles will arise in recreating it at a much larger scale. Bettinger, an associate professor of materials science and biomedical engineering, will focus on the materials science and manufacturing side of the problem.

“A lab is a very precise, controlled environment, but in the field, these parachutes will be exposed to a wide range of variants like temperature, wind, sunlight, moisture, and other non-controllable factors that could activate the chemical reaction prior to the parachute reaching its target,” explains Bettinger. “The material will have to be stable enough to be reliably functional, yet transient enough to break down on command.”

The transformation will not be instantaneous, even in the best conditions, however. The researchers are expecting the material to disappear within 20 minutes to two hours, much in the way that dry ice dissipates from a solid to a gas.

Researchers from the MORSE Corporation and the University of Akron are partnering with Carnegie Mellon on this project.