Feb 17, 2016 | By Alec

Metal 3D printing innovation is being spearheaded by a number of parties throughout the world, and the US military can definitely be found at the forefront. Over the past few years, the various military branches have been using 3D printing for the development of a number of aircraft, defense, and weapons manufacturing solutions. Though many projects are still under development, the first results of this innovative approach are now coming in. The US Army just announced that they will be taking their new 3D printed drone systems, or On-Demand Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) as they are officially called, to the 2017 Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments – an annual event were new military tools are tested and showcased.

This interesting 3D printing application is simply one of the first ongoing projects that are finally reaching fruition. Just over the last few months, several other projects have kicked off; the U.S. Air Force awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne a $6M contract to develop 3D printed rocket engines; the U.S. Navy has adopted metal 3D printing onboard warships; and a 41-foot Coast Guard boat has just been 3D scanned. Just last week, the U.S. Army also announced a heartwarming project to produce personalized 3D printed keepsakes for soldiers and their families.

But when it comes to new military applications, there’s no better place to test them than the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments, or AEWE. Held annually by the U.S. Army, it’s their Training and Doctrine Command's live, force-on-force experiment that has the goal of putting next gen solutions into the hands of soldiers and getting early and credible feedback from the all-important end-users. For the 2017 edition, projects had to be submitted in January by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory for a chance of inclusion in the next round of experimentation. The On-Demand Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems were selected as one of the 50 technologies to participate in the experiment, with 14 being developed by government researchers and 36 by industry partners. AEWE 2017 will take place at Fort Benning, Georgia, in early2017.

According to Eric Spero, an acting team lead in the ARL Vehicle Technology Directorate, the selection committee was convinced that soldiers need to see the progress in the UAS project to enable them to see how they can be used practically and in what timeframe. “"We saw the trajectories of two beneficial technology areas converging in the future,” Spero said. “The technologies are 3-D printing and small unmanned aircraft systems, sometimes referred to as drones.” Specifically, they saw an opportunity to deploy these special drones in small-unit, decentralized decision-making tests in complex environments. “Our technology is not about UASs,” Spero explained. “It's about the capability to design and build on-demand. The concept takes advantage of 3-D printing as a future enabler and positions us, as the U.S. military, to take advantage of increasingly better manufacturing technologies.”

Spero also outlined their functionality in a white paper, explaining that these 3D printed drone solutions provide support to manned and unmanned teams in the field. “Small UASs equipped with sensors, for example, day or night, still or video, can provide preemptive threat detection and identification,” he wrote. What’s more, an on-demand 3D printing production process will enable them to deliver customized, specific solutions via air. “Small UASs can also be used to investigate weapons of mass destruction at a safe stand-off distance, looking beyond gaps, collecting forensic data, and breaching complex obstacles such as those that require hover-flight capability,” Spero added.

That customization process can be applied before any mission through soldier input, he explains. Should an immediate, unforeseen problem arise, Spero’s team’s software can simply generate a computer-aided model – which is 3D printed and assembled with off-the-shelf equipment. That software and assembly process is currently becoming developed in collaboration with Georgia Tech's Aerospace Systems Design Lab. “The solution is envisioned to be available at the battalion level and below, supporting the company, platoon, squad and individual Soldier,” Spero said.

While such tools are already theoretically possible with off-the-shelf drones, this 3D printing process adds a whole new flexible dimension, and is also more cost-effective and more widely applicable. “Small components are procured and assembled into a vehicle. The vehicle is relatively easy to repair or replace, or can be disposed of. The level of maintenance is driven by how long you want to a particular vehicle solution,” Spero explains. “When we mention that the on-demand version is flexible, potentially more available, and at a much lower cost - that's when people get excited.”

What’s more, expensive drones won’t become obsolete as quickly as they do with the current manufacturing process. Should new components be developed or missions altered, a few new parts can easily be installed instead of rendering a whole fleet of machines obsolete. “A small inventory of inexpensive, off-the-shelf electronics enables a wide range of UAS capability,” he said. The burden of inventory will also be significantly reduced.

The project is a part of the ARL Science for Maneuver Campaign, one of the eight initiatives that comes out of the lab. "We're focused on gaining a deeper understanding of advanced mobility technologies that will bring greater capabilities to our Soldiers,” said Dr. Mark Valco, director of the Vehicle Technology Directorate. “This project is a good example of our efforts to explore flexible, low-cost capability enhancements,” Valco explained. He further added that this is a completely new approach to military drone use, design philosophy and production.

Valco further argued that this would not be possible without 3D printing advancements. “Innovation is the key. We're demonstrating a capability, but we need to evolve design tools, higher-grade materials and the ability to print faster. Our researchers are continually looking for opportunities to enable these new capabilities,” he concluded.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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