Drones can make useful tools for learning more about the environment, but in some cases they can upset the same ecosystems they’re being used to study. Now, a new type of drone is being made from biodegradable, eco-friendly materials.
The "biodrone" was designed by a team of students from Brown, Spelman, and Stanford Universities in collaboration with NASA’s Ames Research Center. The group’s leader, NASA biologist Lynn Rothschild, recently spoke with Discover magazine about the project. She says she got the idea from a previous drone crash that nearly yielded disastrous results: The 400-pound research device went missing off the Alaskan coast in 2013, but was luckily discovered by fisherman with its fuel tank still intact. Future incidents may not end so uneventfully, which is why Rothschild helped develop a drone that can crash with little environmental impact.
To construct the prototype, the team worked with the material science company Ecovative. The biodrone's frame is composed of a fungal root material called mycelium, which was placed in a mold where it consumed leaf and grass cuttings until it had completely filled out the mold's shape. The mycelium was then dried out at 180 to 200°F, leaving a lightweight chassis. That chassis was coated with cellulose acetate, which was then itself coated with a hydrophobic protein found in paper wasp saliva to make it waterproof. The propellers were molded from the same plastic found in biodegradable forks and knives. According to Discover, while a 100 percent biodegradable motor is still theoretical, one future possibility is a bacterial fuel cell used to provide electricity and power the propeller motors. Another potential addition is a camera made with ultra-thin silicon that dissolves in water, or electronics printed on sheets of cellulose acetate in dissolvable silver nanoparticle ink.
According to WIRED, these biodrones could also have applications on missions to Mars. By biogenerating a drone on Mars from a sample of cells, NASA would be saving both space and money on the trip there. Such a drone's biogenerative properties could also open up the possibility for one-way research missions, since there's no concern about retrieving toxic materials—instead of harming whatever environment it lands in, the drone could provide a fungus-flavored treat to creatures nearby.