With a click and a buzz, the mothership releases the gliders.

Guided by GPS and inertial measurement sensors, the hand-sized machines steer with articulated flaps. Individually, each of the gliders is a CICADA, or Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft. Together, they are a flock of valuable sensors. NASA demonstrated the release of flights of CICADAS from larger drone platforms at Beaver Dam Airpark, Virginia, March 2019.

CICADA drones, it turns out, have a military origin.

Concept art for the CICADA dates back to at least 2006, with prototypes displayed in 2011 and 2015. The research was originally funded by the Naval Research Laboratory, with the goal of creating a sensor platform that could be flown for $100. Piggybacking delivery has been part of the plan since the first inkling of the CICADA design, with deployment suggested from crewed aircraft, large balloons, or unmanned vehicles.

The low cost makes recovering the CICADAs a perk more than a necessity, and so long as the sensors on the CICADAs can collect and transmit data, they can provide valuable information about wherever it is they’ve landed.

By 2017, the Navy had gotten the price of individual CICADAs down to $250, and reached a form factor best described as a child’s drawing of an airplane. The gliders are stackable and rackable, allowing an easy release of many all at once.

Meteorological use cases are a staple of the Navy’s interest in CICADAs, and deployment in a tornado remains an aspirational goal for both the Navy and NASA.

With deployment from larger “hive” drones demonstrated, and an effective stackable form factor, the future of CICADA and CICADA-like drones is largely dependent on what sensors can be made and incorporated into the printed circuit boards. It’s easy to imagine chemical sensors on CICADAs that are dropped to see if there’s been an aerosolized hazard in an area, and if it’s safe to send people in after. Or perhaps just CICADAs with microphones scattered over a distant mountain pass, transmitting movement overheard, maybe activating only for the sounds of engines.

For now, the potential of the CICADA drop is best understood by watching a cloud of the gliders fly all at once. Watch below:

Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.

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