Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s a… fungus drone? Yep, scientists have created a “biological drone” made mostly out of biodegradable substances, including fungal material, and it has just completed its first flight.
Drones are handy little things. They can be used to stealthily spy on enemy territory, explore remote locations, protect endangered species from poaching and chase storms, to name a few. In the future, they might even be delivering your packages. But the problem with drones is that they crash a lot, just like the one that recently ended up in a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. That means that they can litter areas with plastic and metal debris, which not only has the potential to damage the environment, it also informs people that you’ve been snooping around.
If the drone were to simply melt away into the surroundings when it crashed, however, no footprint would be left, and the problem would be solved. This is why scientists from Stanford and NASA buddied up recently and created a prototype drone from biological materials. Well, mostly.
The chassis of the drone is made of a root-like fungal material called mycelium. It was grown inside a custom mold in a lab by a company called Ecovative Design who is also using this fungal mass as a green alternative for applications such as packaging and surfboard cores.
The body was then covered in cellulose sheets grown by bacteria, which were coated in the same proteins that paper wasps use to waterproof their nests. The circuits were also forged from silver nanoparticle ink to aid the degradation process, which can also be printed on biodegradable boards.
The rest of the drone, such as the motors, propellers and controls, were borrowed from a commercially-made quadcopter and are therefore not biodegradable. Although some parts cannot realistically be replaced with biological materials, the researchers hope to one day be able to create a drone that is almost entirely biodegradable, and are currently working towards biodegradable propellers.
Many drones are also equipped with sensors that are designed to detect various things like pollution and air quality, but these are heavy and bulky and can reduce flight times. Given advances in genetic engineering, it may one day be possible to replace these sensors with organisms such as bacteria that have been modified to pick up the same things that electronic sensors do. This would not only reduce the weight, but also add another biodegradable component. However, this does raise issues of whether it’s safe to unleash engineered organisms into the environment should it crash.
Trying to reduce our footprint on the environment is great, but methinks that a puddle of fungal goop with propellers sticking out of it might still be a giveaway that someone's been spying.