Oct 6, 2015 | By Tess

Last month at the annual Intelligence and National Security Alliance summit held in Washington, DC, experts and enthusiasts of intelligence and national defence from the public, private and academic sectors came together to discuss the current realities and future of American national security. Among the topics discussed, was an especially promising one: the potentials of 3D printing for military purposes.

Larry Holmes, the principal investigator for materials and technology development in additive manufacturing at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), was among those toting the possibilities of developing 3D printing technology to cater to a range of the military’s needs including communications and terraforming the battleground among other things.

Among the potential uses for additive manufacturing he discussed were 3D printed plastic antennas, spy cameras, biometric communication, and robots that could build beachheads.

The 3D printed antennas could have the potential to help keep communication lines open in the war zone, operating above or separately from the electromagnetic spectrum, which is increasingly filled with cell phone and other types of waves. The antenna, though not made from a conductive material (either plastic or even ceramic) could still be made dielectric thanks to research being conducted at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Holmes explains that the 3D printed antenna would work “by the dielectrics that are internal to the structure, solely because of the shapes you can make through 3D printing.” That is, the antenna would function electronically through its geometric composition, meticulously designed with 3D technology, rather than through its material, plastic being a non-conductive material.

The benefits of having an additively manufactured antenna include being able to manufacture them on the spot rather than having parts and equipment imported, as Holmes puts it, the antenna would “help us reduce logistics and the logistics trail but also help with signature management.”

The next potential use for 3D printing that Holmes discussed was for making hidden bugs or spy cams, though this application of 3D printing may still take years to come to fruition. Making hidden bugs through additive manufacturing would work through multi-material printing, a new and still not fully developed method of printing objects that incorporate working electronics in them. For the military this could mean having spy equipment in even the most mundane, everyday objects, effectively eliminating part of the need for on the ground human intelligence.

Another application that may not be realized for some time, but is an exciting prospect for the future of 3D printing and national defense is its part in furthering biometric communication. The Army has for a long time had an interest in brain-to-computer communication, and have invested millions of dollars into furthering the research surrounding it. For instance, in 2008 researchers at UC Irvine, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University were granted 4 million dollars to conduct research on synthetic telepathy. The research involved EEG sensor data, which was the product of a sensor picking up the brain’s electromagnetic pulses and translating the pulses into a very base level of communication, not unlike Morse Code. Once collected, the signals could then be sent to another person via transcranial magnetic stimulation.

3D printing could advance this technology by manufacturing helmets embedded with EEG technology. Holmes explains the concept saying, “Imagine if I have a helmet. You can put it in this [3D printing] machine, tell this machine to scan it, then go back and say, ‘Oh, this mission requires some communication device that I don’t have.’ I can tell [the printer] to rebuild this helmet and incorporate the device into this helmet as I’m building it, antennas, structured sensors. Whatever.”

The final prospect for 3D printing in the military that Holmes discussed was not an official army project, but something he has conceptualized on his own and calls “forward operations for reconnaissance and terraforming” (FORT). He explains his idea, “We drop a black box in a place where you wouldn’t want to send your soldiers. It could be a biohazard area, a radioactive area, dense jungle, the top of a mountain, a dangerous extreme environment, etc. Through a suite of sensors, this manufacturing unit senses what’s around it, what minerals are in the sand, and  what trees are around it. It then prints robots to go collect those materials, to collect sap from trees, mud and straw to make bricks. These robots bring those materials back. The box uses the materials to build whatever you need: a containment unit, a helicopter pad on the side of a mountain…”

Though the idea seems exciting, the programming technology needed to make his idea a reality does not yet exist, and would potentially take decades to be executed. That being said, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has also been looking into the field of advanced robotics for additive manufacturing through their program Magnetically Actuated Micro-Robots for Advanced Manipulation Applications.

Within the military domain, 3D printing is a recent addition to their technological advancement research. In fact, it was only one year ago that the Navy installed a 3D printer on one of their ships, the USS Essex. While the potentials of additive manufacturing are many in areas such as intelligence and national defense, there have been some limitations to introducing the technology within them, notably because of the difficulty of meeting strict military manufacturing specifications. Holmes explains that because of this factor, most of the developments in 3D printing for the military have come by way of the special operations community, which is less bound up in red tape. As of now, the Army’s Rapid Equipment Force has five 3D printing stations, two of which have been active in Afghanistan since 2012 for the purpose of printing replacement parts. 

Another big limitation to incorporating 3D printing technology into the military has to do with money and political gain. While 3D printing could effectively save the military and taxpayers potentially billions of dollars, it would cost current military suppliers just as much in losses.

Despite the limitations, however, 3D printing technology does not appear to be slowing down, and with developers such as Larry Holmes spearheading military developments through additive manufacturing, we anticipate a growing presence of the technology in future national defense projects and ventures.



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