Unmanned Systems

ARL wants soldiers to 3D print small drones

The Army has used 3D printing to produce parts and repair vehicles in the field, and even explored the potential to print out lightweight electronics.

Now researchers at the Army Research Lab are examining using 3D printing technology to build on the fly – literally.

The plan is to integrate small unmanned aerial vehicles into the hands of soldiers built using 3D printers. “We saw the trajectories of two beneficial technology areas converging in the future,” said Eric Spero, an acting team lead in the ARL Vehicle Technology Directorate. “Our technology is not about UASs. It’s about the capability to design and build on-demand. The concept takes advantage of 3D printing as a future enabler and positions us, as the U.S. military, to take advantage of increasingly better manufacturing technologies.”

Small UASs build “on-demand” can be customized to deliver specific supply classes.         

“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 said in an Army release.

The software used to produce these vehicles generates a computer-aided design model of a vehicle. Rapid manufacturing then generates the UAS structure with off-the-shelf parts gathered from inventory and machined parts combined with electronic parts to produce the full product. 

Spero said that the solution is designed to be available at the battalion level – between 500 and 600 soldiers –and below.  

Speaking to the flexibility, cost and availability such a capability would provide, Spero said “[s]mall 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.”

Despite the revolutionary capabilities this technological development might engender, reproducing military-grade products through 3D printing has been a challenge. While products might look – and even feel – like the real thing, they aren’t. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has spearheaded an effort to examine this trend. The agency’s Open Manufacturing program will take a look at the make-up and eventual reliability of 3-D printed objects.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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