Mar 11, 2016 | By Alec

Despite all its secrets and classified projects, it’s hardly a secret that the US military is a firm believer in 3D printing. Just about every known branch of the military is using and experimenting with 3D printing in some shape or form; just earlier this year, the navy adopted 3D printing in one of their warfare centers, while the army announced the testing of customizable 3D printed reconnaissance drones. But 3D printing goes far further than just prototyping, as a new release from the Pentagon proves. They have just released formerly classified footage of a swarm of 3D printed drones being launched from an F-17 fighter jet moving at 430 mph.

Of course the US military is known for its use of drones in combat zones, but 3D printing was rarely involved. The released footage, which can be seen below, was filmed over the Alaskan skies last summer. These micro-drones, which are launched as canisters on parachutes that break open to release the drones with inch-wide propellers, are also understood to be programmed as to fly as a swarm with a single mind. They can currently be launched from moving F-16s and F/A-18 fighter jets. A truly futuristic concept that conjures up images of locust swarms that blot out the sun over battlefields.

While that might still be some years away, the tests were promising. The Washington Post, which shared the footage, revealed that the experiments were led by the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO)– an organization which was very secretive until this latest release. Reportedly launched in 2012 with the purpose of figuring out how to counter growing Chinese and Russian threats, it is understood they are working on several classified projects. Their public emergence follows a revamp program at the Pentagon, which is looking for new ways to adapt to new situations. They are also looking to strengthen relationships with high tech companies, in part through the new Defense Innovation Advisory Board.

It is understood that SCO is charged with creating new “trick plays” for the Pentagon, referring to football jargon, using creativity and engineering and the knowledge of both private and government institutions. The institute is being led by physicist William Roper, who has a background in missile defense. “I have been in the classified, black world for my whole career, so all of this is new for me and I really wish I could go back,” he said of the new approach. “You can’t win wars if everything is outside the doors, but you can’t deter wars if everything is behind them.” Some of these details about the SCO were released in a recent speech by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who discussed some proposed issues for the 2017 budget, including a call for $902 million for the SCO.

In that speech, he also talked about these fascinating swarming micro-drones, as just one of the autonomous technologies the SCO is working on. And they are very impressive. “In the air, they develop micro-drones that are really fast, really resistant,” Carter said in his speech. “They can fly through heavy winds and be kicked out the back of a fighter jet moving at Mach 0.9, like they did during an operational exercise in Alaska last year, or they can be thrown into the air by a soldier in the middle of the Iraqi desert.”

He went on to state that this is just one application of autonomous technology, which also relies on clever use of existing electronics and technologies. “For example, the micro-drones […] use a lot of commercial components and are actually 3D printed and the boats build on some of the same artificial intelligence algorithms that long-ago and in a much more primitive form were on the Mars lander,” he said. The drones have been in the testing stage since 2014.

While the specifics of the drones are still classified, it is expected that these drones will be used for surveillance and for confusing the enemy. Being 3D printed, they cost just a fraction of other types of UAV, and weigh just a pound each. As we saw in the clip, falling out of a jet 2,000 feet  above the ground is no problem for these drones. Once free, they gain situational awareness. During the Alaska exercise, 150 tests were done with the drones – 72 involving fighter jets.

According to director Roper, the drones are part of a project called Perdix, named after a character in Greek mythology who was turned into a partridge. The program cost about $20 million, he revealed, and heavily involved 3D printing. So far, the results are reportedly good and the 3D printed parts can withstand the immense pressures involved in being launched from a fighter jet. It looks like 3D printing will become an integral part of the military drones of the future.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Phil Gibson wrote at 3/12/2016 2:25:40 AM:

I couldn't seem to view the video on this page. It starts but it doesn't seem to get past the initial black summary screen.

Bob Rainey wrote at 3/11/2016 7:04:17 PM:

They released footage of ONE drone launched from an F-16. But close...

Bill wrote at 3/11/2016 4:09:09 PM:

Swarm of drones from an F-17, you say? Sure didn't look like it to me, just saying.

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