Flying drones are just one of many technologies that look set to launch a future full of toys and tools that serve a purpose, then leave a legacy of e-waste in their wake. What can be done?
If history serves as a lesson, the inexorable progress towards the future cannot be stopped. But the proliferation of drones lost by tourists snapping aerial shots of scenic, sensitive environments can be predicted, in addition to downed military drones, abandoned toy drones and -- well, we already know that story.
Could biodegradable drones be the answer?
The iGEM team has built and flown a prototype four-prop drone out of biodegradable and biologically-sourced materials. Sort of. It is the drone's chassis that is built of mycelium, which are the thread-like fibers that grow out of fungus. The innovative material was sourced from Ecovative. You might remember them as the company behind the tallest mushroom tower in the world.
However, the so-called mushroom drone cannot fly without electronics and batteries, so it cannot be called completely biodegradable. But the team has progressed in this area as well. They collaborated with silicon valley start-up AgIC to print a circuit board using cellulose-based biosheets as a platform.
The challenge of batteries may be the most difficult to overcome, but the team makes allusions to a "partially living vehicle". It is the business of life to turn natural materials into energy. Could a fully biodegradable drone one day fly by bacteria power?
Of course, the motivation for the project backed by NASA is military: imagine spy drones that disappear into a puddle of sugar water if they are lost. But the technology is pushing the limits of what we can do to build the machines that power growth and innovation with materials that will ensure people can survive on this planet to enjoy the fruits of progress.