BY: SINEAD MULHERN
A new environmentally friendly drone technology is designed to disintegrate when entering sensitive ecological areas. It’s made out of fungus, coated with wasp saliva and looks a bit like a disposable coffee tray.
A group of 15 students from Stanford University, Brown University and Spelman College worked together on this project for the 2014 iGEM competition. The drone will decompose in a few months and is designed to aid environmental research like collecting data from sensitive coral reef structures or count numbers of endangered species in protected areas.
The idea of tackling litter from downed drones came from Lynn Rothschild, the lead synthetic biologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and project team advisor. She says there have been issues lately where drones have gone down in sensitive areas and in places where one wouldn’t want a drone to disappear. Usually the students come up with the project focus themselves but this year, there were too many potential directions for the project.
While it could be used for military intent, that was not the original plan. Joseph Shih, a Stanford bioengineering lecturer and team leader says that for it to be adopted for military strategy, it would have to decompose in a matter of days, not months. The team is working to make it decompose faster though. The target is for it to disintegrate within four days.
This biodegradable drone is made of mycelium, a root-like material that comes from fungi that will grow to fit the form that it’s contained in. A blast of heat stops the growth when it has grown to the desired form. The circuits are printed with silver nanoparticle ink.
It looks like cardboard and might sound like it would fall apart underwater, but it’s actually waterproof. The scientists coated the prototype using proteins cloned from wasp saliva DNA. Wasp saliva is what makes the insects’ nests waterproof.
The drone isn’t entirely biodegradable just yet though. The rotar and battery are still made the traditional way. Scientists are working to make the entire structure out of biodegradable materials.