July 30, 2015 | By Alec

Drones in every shape and size can be found floating about in the 3D printing community, but a new application for them is being developed: as military assets. Only last week, we saw how the British navy 3D printed and assembled a drone on a warship in open waters, and now the US navy has revealed that its essentially doing the same. As researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School reveal, a test with the 3D printing and assembly of a military-purpose drone already took place aboard the USS Essex in December 2014. Like the British, the Americans are considering incorporating 3D printed drones into the warship arsenal for flying missions in emergency situations.

These 3D printed drones are part of an ongoing project by researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School to investigate exactly what modern communication and fabrication technologies can do for sailors out on a mission. Among others, they are testing the use of onboard 3D printers that can manufacture drones that can be customized for whatever mission they’re applied on. Research associate Alan Jaeger showed off a 3D printed quadcopter drone to reporters, that had been 3D printed aboard the USS Essex in December 2014.

As he explained, the 3D printer and all the electronics were already onboard. The 3D printable files were subsequently emailed to the ship through a satellite link, after which sailors 3D printed and assembled the drone during their mission. Included in its setup was a radio, a controller and a GPS unit. 'The challenge aboard a ship is logistics. Once a ship leaves, getting additional parts to that ship becomes difficult,’ Jaeger explained. He and his team are envisioning a setup were ships can be equipped with kits of core electronic parts, while the drone body itself can be adjusted during a mission to suit whatever purpose it has. The drone visible above had been designed to carry a small camera and transmitter to send a live video feed to a sailor onboard, and could be used to fly over ships in support of anti-piracy measures. The 3D printer used had already been installed onboard as a medical tool.

The flight test itself did reveal some potential problem areas surrounding the operation of a drone during mission, though the team was very satisfied with the 3D printing aspect. ‘Even with a small amount of wind, something this small will get buffeted around,’ Jaeger revealed. Launching the drone and successfully taking it home without interfering with other flight operations and radio sources is also something that needs to be worked on.

Fortunately for fans of 3D printed drones, Jaeger also took the drone up for a test flight at NASA’s Ames Research Center, as you can see below. The flight was relatively restricted because the facility’s proximity to the Moffett Field runway – which just reemphasizes the problems facing military applications of drone technology today. While it might thus take a few years, these developments suggest that 3D printed military drones are definitely forthcoming.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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