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DIY Drones

Students hack together award-winning craft.

Eli Block/Stanford-Brown-Spelman IGEM Team

In most situations, a flying fungus slathered in wasp spit would sound more like a problem than a solution to one. But the odd mix is at the heart of a student proposal for making drones more environmentally friendly.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are in the news for everything from military strikes to grocery deliveries. They’ve also become crucial to scientists studying sensitive areas. But what happens when one crashes over a reef or a refuge?

The problem struck NASA Ames astrobiologist and adjunct professor Lynn Rothschild when a fellow scientist’s drone disappeared over Arctic waters. It inspired her challenge to 15 students from Stanford, Brown and Spelman whom she advised last summer ahead of the 2014 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. Make a drone that essentially disappears after it crashes.

The result is the “bio-drone”—a quad-copter with a chassis built from mycelium, a mushroom-like material,and sheathed in sheets of cellulose.Waterproofing would be the next step, and students proposed utilizing wasp saliva, known for its ability to keep nests dry in rain. Students captured their own wasps then identified six genes that may express the saliva’s hydrophobic powers. They received a gold medal at the October competition.

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