Dec 19, 2017 | By Benedict

U.S. Army researchers are working with the Marines to develop 3D printed drones that can be fabricated in just 24 hours. The researchers say the Marines, who expected the printing process to take days or weeks, have been universally impressed with the drones.

The United States Armed Forces, one of the largest military forces on the planet, is also one of the best places to find additive manufacturing innovation in action. From 3D printed grenade launchers to new 3D printing security techniques, you’ll find futuristic examples of all things 3D in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and even the Air Force.

At the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, two branches of the Armed Forces are working together to explore the potential of two futuristic technologies. Army researchers are presenting a process for 3D printing mission-specific drones to the Marine Corps, who have reportedly embraced the project with open arms.

The 3D printed drones combine materials science, aviation technology, and software development, and were first seen in 2016 at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command's annual event at Fort Benning, Georgia. Initially an Army project carried out in collaboration with Georgia Tech researchers, these 3D printed drones could soon be ready for military action.

After refining the process for 3D printing mission-specific drones using equipment like LulzBot 3D printers from Aleph Objects, the Army researchers involved in the project reached out to the Marine Corps to see if they would be interested in utilizing the printed aviation assets. Their response? Unanimously positive…

“We have interacted with Marines who have never touched an unmanned system before to Marines who are experts in unmanned aerial flight,” said Army Research Laboratory (ARL) engineer Larry “LJ” R. Holmes Jr. “Across the board they all seemed to be very interested in the topic of being able to manufacture a tool that they can use that [is] mission-specific.”

One of the main aspects of the 3D printed drones that impressed the Marines was the quick turnaround. According to the Army researchers, several Marines expected the process to take days or even weeks, so seeing the UAV come together in just 24 hours was a big surprise.

Impressively, this process could get even faster: the researchers are planning to streamline the process based on feedback received from the consulted Marines, and plan to put together a digital catalogue of drone options from which Marines can simply pick and choose an appropriate vehicle. Aspects of the chosen drone could then be customized based on the specifics of the mission.

“Things like additive manufacturing with materials, artificial intelligence and machine learning, unmanned systems technologies, these will enable us to bring together the capabilities that will allow the future Soldiers and Marines the decisive edge that they need in the battlefield,” said Elias Rigas, a division chief in ARL's Vehicle Technology Directorate.

But while the Army and Marine Corps aren’t able to reveal exactly what these 3D printed drones will be used for, Army engineer Holmes does have an interesting theory as to why 3D printing has captured the imaginations of so many people, both within the military and elsewhere:

“I think a lot of folks are interested in additive manufacturing because we've seen on sci-fi shows…just walking up to a user interface and saying, ‘cheeseburger,’ and there's my cheeseburger,” he said. “I think that as additive manufacturing continues to grow and the technologies continue to evolve that we're going to get to a point eventually where we will be making things in a similar fashion where you will walk up to your user interface and say, ‘unmanned aerial system,’ and it will make it for you.”

A lot of work needs to be done before the 3D printed drones are fully ready for action, including strengthening the materials used and speeding up the printing process. But when these obstacles are overcome, Holmes’ sci-fi vision could become reality.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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