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The DataHawk unmanned aircraft.

The Datahawk unmanned aircraft, a disposable drone that will study ice melt in the Arctic Ocean.

Photograph courtesy Dale Lawrence

Jaclyn Skurie

National Geographic

Published July 25, 2013

New drones made from disposable materials offer an inexpensive option for collecting data in high-risk environments—like measuring the speed of a wildfire or the temperature of a volcano.

After use, the drones are left to decompose wherever they land.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been using disposable and expendable unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to track high-impact weather such as tropical cyclones and hurricanes. Because of their small size, UAS can also monitor marine sanctuaries and other protected ecosystems without human interference.

(Related: "Pictures: Drones Take on Hurricanes, Environment Work.")

"We want to get the cost as low as possible, so we use these instead of manned aircraft," said Robbie Hood, the UAS program director for NOAA. "We can put them in dangerous situations, so if we do lose them, we haven't lost human life."

Here are three disposable drones created to collect information in areas even the most daring storm chaser would not enter.

The DataHawk

Humans aren't the only ones suffering through the summer heat—Arctic icebergs have to fight to survive rapid changes in ocean conditions during the summer melt period. The DataHawk, designed by engineers Dale Lawrence and Scott Palo of the University of Colorado Boulder, will study at a low cost what local conditions are contributing to ice melt in the Arctic Ocean.

The DataHawk will be deployed this week from the north slope of Alaska to a targeted landing spot on the sea surface. Once the drone lands, it will float as a buoy while releasing censors to different depths of the Arctic Ocean, measuring water temperatures down to a depth of 33 feet (10 meters).

The drone is being used as a part of the University of Colorado's Marginal Ice Zone Observations and Processes Experiment, which tracks variables such as sea surface salinity and temperature in the Arctic to understand why ice melt is occurring at such a rapid rate.

Large UAS can cost millions of dollars, but the $600 DataHawk—made of a resilient, springy foam called polypropylene—is cheap in comparison. Creator Lawrence predicts the battery life of the 700-gram (25-ounce) model will last between ten days and two weeks on the ocean surface.

The DataHawk isn't necessarily designed to be lost, Lawrence says, but the relatively inexpensive design gives scientists flexibility to send the vehicle into areas otherwise difficult to access.

"If a big wind takes this thing away, it's no big deal. We won't expend a lot of energy to get it back, which takes a big cost out of operating—we don't have to plan as carefully or have as many contingencies [as a large UAS operation would]," he said.

Flying Messages

This paper airplane, a familiar folded flying contraption, is actually a robot.

 

An unmanned drone crafted like a paper airplane.

Photograph courtesy University of Queensland

 

Paul Pounds at the University of Queensland in Australia has designed a disposable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) made from biodegradable paper. Sensors tuned to a specific task are printed directly onto the body of the plane, and small wire motors called voice-coil actuators are attached for steering. Materials for the plane cost $50.

The paper may be biodegradable, but electronics can leach hazardous chemicals into the ground after disposal. Pounds says his research team is aware of this problem and actively exploring an electronic sensor to create a drone with zero impact on the environment.

The Maple Seed

From the same group that designed the paper airplane model comes another drone shaped like a maple seed. The prototype, called the Samara, uses a tiny circuit board with a sensor to collect environmental information that is then transmitted by a radio. The natural seed shape allows the drone to fall slowly without a bulky parachute or arrest system.

 

An unmanned drone shaped like a maple seed.

Photograph courtesy University of Queensland

 

Right now the model can run for about two weeks, and Pounds is working to lengthen this time by developing a solar cell to provide indefinite amounts of power.

The "Samara seed's shape was developed with reference to existing natural structures and good old-fashioned engineering experiments," said Pounds. If produced in bulk, the model's cost could be as low as $5 per seed, he said.

With inexpensive technology like the Samara, scientists can experiment in hard-to-reach places like radioactive land dumps or ice zones without worrying about raising funds or protecting human safety.

Follow Jaclyn Skurie on Twitter.

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