Aug 5, 2017 | By David

While it is increasingly implementing 3D printing technology into production of its large-scale jets and ships, the U.S Navy has also been furthering its advances into drone technology, and the latest breakthrough must be one of the smallest aircraft it has ever developed. The CICADA (Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft) is a surveillance drone, designed to be carried by larger aircraft and then released in big groups similar to the swarms that its insect namesake travels around in. It carries a small sensor payload, and has a custom autopilot system as well as a 3D printed fuselage.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The U.S Naval Research Laboratory has been working on these CICADA drones continuously for around six years now, and the newest prototypes were demonstrated at the 2017 Sea Air Space expo, held in Maryland back in April. The latest delivery system that has been developed for the Mk5 is capable of releasing 32 of the drones simultaneously, and 18 Mk5 drones can be packed together inside a single cube.

The main part of the drone is a circuit board, which also makes up the wings of the miniature aircraft. The fuselage was made using 3D printing to speed up production time and minimize the amount of assembly required. The aim is for the future versions of the CICADA to be produced automatically, built and assembled entirely by robots. This will enable many swarms of these things to be deployed efficiently, at a low cost. Currently each CICADA costs around $250 each, which is already a low enough price tag for them to be considered disposable.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Each CICADA Mk5 weighs just 6.5 grams, and it will descend at a rate of around 1,000 feet per minute. The glide ratio is around 3.5, which means it has a very stable descent, and it will travel further the higher it is released from. The drone is guided towards specific GPS co-ordinates, The initially chaotic tumbling of the drone is corrected by the on-board autopilot system.

The miniature electronic payloads seed an area and can be interconnected to form an ad-hoc, self-configuring network. This allows for communication nodes, sensors, or effectors to be placed in a programmable geometric pattern in hostile territory without directly flying over those regions or exposing any human agents on the ground. The sensors that the prototype drones were equipped with were meteorological sensors. The data that the sensors gathers is transmitted back to the launch aircraft through an antenna embedded in the wings.

According to the NRL’s Dan Edwards, these CICADA drones are always popular with military and tech enthusiasts, and they have a huge range of potential applications beyond their current use: “Every time I show up at a trade show, or talk with people about CICADA, it’s ‘oh, could you do this?’ ” he said. “Chemical and biological sensing is a very interesting idea. There are other electronics you could put in it for seismic sensing along a road. Really, the sky is the limit. It’s just a flying circuit board, so anything you can integrate at the component level is fair game...Right now, [CICADAs] would be ready to go drop into a hurricane or tornado,” he said. “I really would love to fly an airplane over, and each of these could sample in the tornado. That’s ready now. We’d just need a ride. And [FAA] approval.’’



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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