In 2013, a 400-pound research drone went missing off the coast of Alaska, threatening the very environment that the scientists were studying. Fortunately, the fuel tank didn’t rupture, and fishermen recovered the wreckage without mishap.
But the near-miss inspired NASA biologist Lynn Rothschild to design a new kind of drone: one that would have minimal environmental impact if it crashed because it would be made of biodegradable materials, such as bacteria and fungus.
Although Rothschild says it “looks sort of like a dried whole wheat sandwich,” the prototype her team developed is flightworthy. And future iterations of her biodrone — such as the one illustrated at right — might even be designed to fly one-way missions that end in an intentional crash, providing a snack for Alaskan salmon when the crafts’ work is done.