Now You See It, Now You Don’t

They’re not just working on a real world Invisibility Cloak. They’re working to make the message the shadowy IMF sent Jim Phelps back in 1966 a reality:

And not only messages that self-destruct in five seconds. Things that do.

DARPA is working on two separate programs here. One of them is called VAPR, or Vanishing Programmable Resources, and, as the agency itself tells the story, it…

…seeks electronic systems capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner. These transient electronics should have performance comparable to commercial-off-the-shelf electronics, but with limited device persistence that can be programmed, adjusted in real-time, triggered, and/or be sensitive to the deployment environment.

This is not just a way of ensuring the non-propagation of the boss’s message to Jim Phelps, here, but also:

Transient electronics may enable a number of revolutionary military capabilities including degradable environmental sensors or medical devices for diagnosis, treatment and health monitoring in the field. Large-area distributed networks of sensors that can decompose in the natural environment (eco-resorbable) could provide critical data for a specified duration, but no longer. Alternatively, devices that resorb into the body may aid in continuous health monitoring and treatment in the field.

Any imaginative person interested in military and intelligence affairs can think of some uses for such a thing. Imagine, for instance, a cryptological device that self-destructs if it doesn’t exchange a “proof of life” heartbeat signal from its encrypted network at intervals. Losing a crypto unit would no longer require a wholesale rekeying of an entire unit or operation. By the time it’s on an enemy cryptologist’s bench, it’s an inert lump — or, even, completely vanished — VAPR-ized, you might say. There are more sinister and kinetic applications as well. How do you put someone on trial for a shooting if his gun vanishes from the evidence locker? Or, you could secure a flank with scatterable mines, secure in the knowledge that they will evanesce before your counterattack.

DARPA has been working on this kind of technology since 2013.

VAPR has shown products — no-kidding vanishing materials — that a follow-on article describes as:

…small polymer panels that sublimate directly from a solid phase to a gas phase, and electronics-bearing glass strips with high-stress inner anatomies that can be readily triggered to shatter into ultra-fine particles after use.

(Prince Rupert called. He likes what you’re doing with his Drops).

The same project manager who is in charge of the more general program, DARPA’s Troy Olsson, runs a specific instantiation of the idea as well. Project ICARUS (Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems) is spending some millions on delivery vehicles that would be based on the vanishing polymer technology developed under VAPR, such as drones or parachutes. The “Inbound” means they’re initially working at a way to deliver things to individuals or groups in denied areas, such as agents, guerillas, etc., so at this point the vanishing drones and chutes are meant to go into friendly areas.

darpa icarus comic

They held a proposer’s day in 2015 for Icarus (and here); the contract was awarded to MORSE Corp. in June.

The specific contract (Amendment 2) says that its object is this:

DARPA seeks proposals for the design and prototyping of vanishing air delivery vehicles capable of precise, gentle drops of small payloads. These precision vehicles must be guaranteed to rapidly physically disappear following safe payload delivery. Proposed efforts must integrate engineered vanishing materials into advanced aerodynamic designs to produce an autonomously vanishing, field- testable prototype vehicle by the end of the two-year program.

DARPA goes on to explain the problem at some length.

Precise air delivery to resupply operators or humanitarian teams on the ground requires disposable, low-cost, systems capable of carrying small payloads. This capability does not currently exist as the state-of-the-art systems are expensive (UAVs) or require pack-out of the system by the recipients (parachute-based systems). To resolve this capability gap for the nation, DARPA seeks innovative research proposals in the area of vanishing, precision air delivery vehicles capable of carrying small (up to ~3 lbs.) payloads. These systems should be capable of release from high altitude and must vanish while safely delivering their payload. Proposed research should investigate innovative approaches that enable revolutionary advances in science, devices, or systems. Specifically excluded is research that primarily results in evolutionary improvements to the existing state of practice.

That last line is classic DARPA. They don’t want incremental or evolutionary, they want moon shots. Here’s how they explain the mission (one mission) at an UNCLAS level, and identify the credibility gap:

Supply and re-supply of small military and civilian teams in difficult to access territory currently requires the use of large, parachute-based delivery systems that must be packed-out after receipt of the payload both for operational security and environmental concerns. Small items including additional batteries, communications devices, or medical supplies – especially those requiring cold storage – could be supplied/resupplied using low-cost, disposable aircraft to sniper or Special Forces teams operating in difficult to access areas. These small teams aggressively minimize their loads and carry only the most critical supplies. Often extenuating circumstances warrants emergency supply such as critical combat casualty care in remote locations where medical evacuation is delayed. Even the availability of a small, 10 lbs. ventilator could significantly improve critical care outcomes downrange. The medical supply problem can be especially problematic in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions where the storage requirements of insulin, anti-venom treatments, and blood/plasma products limit their availability in remote locations or infrastructure-poor regions. For operators and even HADR personnel, delivery vehicles that do not require pack-out can simplify their operations and limit the environmental impact of a widespread response. Finally, operators in hostile territories require protection of their team’s location. As such, maintaining operational security forbids leaving behind supply vehicles. Weighed against the load concerns of pack-out this presents a logistical conundrum.

A critical capability gap exists in eliminating the leave-behind of air vehicles used to deliver supplies to personnel on the ground without requiring pack-out. Such pack-out of these systems is cumbersome, time-consuming, and adds significant weight to the individuals’ loads. DARPA is seeking to develop autonomous, precision, air delivery vehicles that both safely deliver their package(s) and physically vanish, i.e. the vehicle’s physical disappearance is part of its mission specification. Such a system would enable efficient resupply to teams in distributed locations, eliminate the need to repack/pack-out delivery parachutes resupplying small operating forces downrange, and create a capability to safely, and without detritus, deliver time-critical humanitarian supplies (e.g. food, perishable medical supplies) to civilian/NGO personnel serving in remote or dangerous areas.

Challenging, isn’t it? Wait till they get to specifics:

The Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems program (ICARUS) aims to develop a core capability to fill this gap for the DoD and nation through the development of vanishing, precision, air delivery vehicles for small (< 3 lb.) packages. These systems should:

  1. Fully vanish within four hours of payload delivery or within 30 minutes of morning civil twilight (assuming a night drop), whichever is earlier.

    "I don't understand... it was here five minutes ago!"

    “I don’t understand… it was here five minutes ago!”

  2. Precisely drop an up to 3 lb. payload within 10 m of the target landing spot programmed prior to air release.
  3. Exert < 100 G (1 ms peak, half sine wave) on the payload throughout its delivery.
  4. Cover a lateral distance of > 150 km when released from a stationary balloon at 35,000 feet.
  5. Span fewer than 3 m in its longest dimension.

#4 seems to exclude most traditional air-delivery parachutes, as well as unpowered gyrogliders (too low a glide ratio, approximately 4:1 in the case of the unpowered gyro). So you’re looking at an improvement in the capability of that technology of a very great degree, or you’re looking at a fixed or ram air wing, probably with significant on-board thrust of some kind.

No system currently exists that fulfills the complete specifications described above. State-of-the- art precision delivery using Tandem Offset Resupply Delivery Systems (TORDS), Joint Precision Airdrop Systems (JPADS), or civilian quadcopters or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) typically require complex materials and/or controllers to meet the aerodynamic requirements, but simply cannot vanish. Furthermore, precision notwithstanding, no air delivery vehicles have been fielded with a disappearing or transience capability. Recent advances produced in both DARPA’s Vanishing, Programmable Resources (VAPR) program and in the wider materials science literature indicate the potential for triggered, transient structural materials that may be applied to the aeronautics problem posed herein. DARPA defines transience as full and complete physical disappearance (to the naked eye) of a complete system and its constituent materials – independent of the surrounding environment. As such, any remnants must be < 100 μm on the longest dimension. Implementation of the transient materials in the VAPR program has advanced the transience characteristics (e.g., rate, triggering) while simultaneously improving the structural properties (e.g., Young’s modulus) for their application to various types of electronic packaging and substrates. The VAPR program has partially de-risked the main materials tradeoffs between transience rate, stability and modulus. Further innovations in materials engineering, subsequent materials scale-up, and incorporation into a high-precision aerodynamic design will require cohesive, multidisciplinary teams working in a well-integrated fashion to produce a working design and fabricate a field-testable prototype.

DARPA is interested in the fundamental question of whether a large, functional structure can be made transient. This will have impact in many different core areas where a leave behind will have environmental and/or unintended logistical consequence. There is a potential future where systems can be made cheap enough to be disposable limiting the logistics trail, and maximizing range for a given flight system.

We’ll give you one more block-o-text from the DARPA proposal Amendment 2, but there’s more there:

ICARUS seeks to design, prototype, and demonstrate an autonomous, guided, precision, vanishing air delivery vehicle capable of delivering a small package (up to 3 lbs.) to a GPS-programmed location (10 m accuracy). Following a night drop, the air delivery vehicle must completely, physically disappear within 4 hours of payload delivery or within 30 minutes after morning civil twilight, whichever is earlier. To be considered not visible to the naked eye, DARPA nominally quantifies physical disappearance, or transience, as producing remnants not exceeding 100 μm on the longest dimension. Preferably, the orientation of the payload with respect to the ground will be maintained after delivery (i.e. the payload will be delivered right side up). Since transient electronic microsystems are currently under development in the VAPR program, this BAA allows for the proposed vehicles to carry a guidance/control system exempt from the transience requirements provided it is housed in a package no larger than a tennis ball (max. volume 146 cm3) with a maximum ellipsoidal aspect ratio of 3:1. Any components of the vehicle existing outside of the tennis ball package must be transient. Camouflaging schemes, removal or departure of the vehicle, and other approaches that would be described as “technically disappeared” are not of interest to DARPA and are considered non-responsive. Delivery vehicles may land with the payload at the landing zone (LZ) or proceed to a different location after safely dropping the payload. In both cases, the vehicle must be completely transient. Multi-stage implementations (analogous to multi-stage rockets) are within scope, again provided all stages are fully transient regardless of whether initial stages land at a distance from the payload LZ. Simply put, if the proposed delivery system does not fully vanish it will be deemed non-responsive – transience is the highest priority design requirement. Prototypes developed under ICARUS must be field- testable in the specified environmental conditions by program end. As such, while ICARUS will include some limited fundamental research, the program’s overall objective is to demonstrate a field-testable prototype by the end of its second year and is not considered a fundamental research program.

They want applied research, not lab tomfoolery. But man, it definitely is a moonshot.

Along with MORSE, the Bettinger Group and the Matyjaszewski Polymer Group (ventures of two Carnegie-Mellon University engineering professors) are working on ICARUS technologies. Both have experience with degradable and time-limited materials. CMU calls it “sci-fi tech.” A contract has also been awarded to DZYNE Technologies of Fairfax, VA and Irvine, California.

Faster, please!

8 thoughts on “Now You See It, Now You Don’t

  1. Chris W.

    How about something along the lines of “Clear and Present Danger”: Cellulose-Encased, Laser-Guided (In this case, GPS guided), Glide Bomb? Treat the cellulose like they treat flash paper that magicians use – poof!

    May have to add in some sort of propulsion system such as the old Estes model rocket engines, but once again, I would think you could treat the materials as such that they could be “poofed” after utilization. The “tennis ball sized avionics” shouldn’t be much of a problem considering how far we’ve come with GPS/Arduino-based packages for model UAV’s.

    I think this is entirely possible, or if not currently possible, we’re damn close. Timer-based ignition of the structure or light-sensitive triggering (wouldn’t do that to our guys with flashlights looking for the payload unless they ONLY used IR) is within the realm of possibility utilizing COTS components or damn-near-COTS.

    Just my 2c. Anyone else?

  2. John Distai

    A glider made out of the same cornstarch they use for those dissolving packing peanuts. The person picks up the load, urinates on the glider, and the glider melts.

  3. Desertrat

    Remember movie scenes where somebody shatters the glass as they get thrown through a window?

    Sugar water panes. Could be used for wings and fuselages. Control mechanism would be very small load-out.

  4. Winston Smith

    “…seeks electronic systems capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner. These transient electronics should have performance comparable to commercial-off-the-shelf electronics, but with limited device persistence that can be programmed, adjusted in real-time, triggered, and/or be sensitive to the deployment environment.”

    Pretty sure Comcast already has a patent on that one. I’ve personally seen it deployed several times.

  5. DaveP

    Interesting to see the ^ above comments, as my first thought for degradable material was also methylcellulose. And even with starches, that time constraint’s tight, without some sort of accelerant (and humping in liquid to do that would be wt-prohibitive, so think powder).
    I like the peanut/pee solution!

    Any kinda flammable material would either leave heat signature, smoke, or odor.

    Even before the propulsion and guidance problems, really interesting project.
    DaveP

  6. John Distai

    The peanut/pee solution could be enhanced by some sort of salt layer sandwich in the build. The salt layers would attract the humidity in the air and enhance the process of disintegrating the item. It may work well in humid environments, but may not work at all in the desert.

  7. Aesop

    They should go to the National Archives.
    Right there in the bomb-proof case is the Constitution, and yet it’s completely disappeared from US courts, from SCOTUS down, and in a matter of years.

    If someone can make politicians VAPRize at the expiration of their terms, they’ll be onto something.

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