Unmanned Systems

Marines take 3D printed drones from the lab to the field

The Marines are planning to take their do-it-yourself ethos further and begin prototyping, manufacturing and deploying full-blown 3D printed systems, such as surveillance drones.

The Marines were the first service to 3D print military-grade ammunition and spare parts for weapon systems.

In the coming weeks the service will deploy a tiny unmanned aircraft dubbed the “Nibbler,” which would become the first 3D printed drone used in combat operations by conventional forces. Marines see it as just the beginning of a new way of equipping and supplying forces in the field.

Digital manufacturing is a technology the U.S. military has been pursuing for some time. The Pentagon made headlines in January when it disclosed an experiment in which swarms of 3D printed micro-drones were launched successfully from Navy Super Hornet fighter aircraft.

The Marines’ Nibbler is significant because it would operate just like other, far more expensive, portable unmanned aircraft that are used for “over-the-hill” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“Our team is very enthusiastic about the Nibbler, but even more enthusiastic about what it represents for the future,” said Capt. Chris J. Wood, who oversees innovation efforts at the Marine Corps’ installations and logistics branch.

3D printing gained an early following in the military because it was seen as a solution to the perennial problem of shortages of spare parts for aging weapon systems. The Marines have embraced the technology, which they see as compatible with their “adapt and overcome” culture.

“Imagine being in a forward deployed environment, and just like Amazon, you can ‘order’ the weapons and equipment you need for the next day’s mission from an entire catalog of possible solutions,” Wood said. “These solutions can all be upgraded literally overnight, in order to integrate new components or adapt to new requirements. On a very small scale, Nibbler shows us that this is possible right now with the group 1 UAS family of systems.”

Empowering Marines to manufacture equipment and parts as needed has enormous ramifications, Wood said. “It represents a revolution in the future supply chain.”

If a unit were to deploy with 12 different UAS, for instance, “Then we would have to take 12 or more different types of packaging and associated sustainment parts.” The goal is to have a “small manufacturing capability” locally, he said. All that would be needed is a desktop printer, a box of components, and a spool of plastic 3D printing filament, said Wood. He envisions a “near infinite set of different UAS that we could produce from those basic elements.”

The Nibbler will be used for surveillance missions, along with several other 3D printed unmanned aircraft that the Marines are still developing, Wood said. “We can have a backpack-able fixed wing UAS for long endurance ISR. We can have a small quadcopter for building clearing operations,” he said. “We will forward deploy these capabilities into a combat zone as soon as possible.”

From a cost perspective, 3D printed drones should save the government money in the long run, Wood said. Because the military only buys in small numbers, the upfront cost of a military 3D printed drone is higher than those $300 drones that are sold commercially. “However, it is orders of magnitude less expensive than any military-use UAS with similar performance,” Wood said.

A drone made by Marines in a trailer obviously will not be a substitute for high-end aircraft made by Pentagon contractors, but that is beside the point. “Ultimately, it's about optimizing specific mission needs to the equipment we use to fight those missions,” Wood said. Many of the requirements today could be met with lower end equipment, and often the priority is to get things fast, which is one reason this technology is catching on. “Additive manufacturing and localized manufacturing allows us to do this at a scale and speed never before seen,” said Wood.

Deputy Commandant for Installations and Logistics Lt. Gen. Michael G. Dana has been a champion of 3D printing. Speaking last week at Deloitte’s Additive Manufacturing Forum, he told industry executives that they should jump on the bandwagon.

Marines clearly have ambitious goals but recognize the technology and the business culture are not there yet. There are no expectations that, today, a Marine will buy a $2,000 printer and make military-compliant axles. But they do see a future of “micro-factories” propping up around the United States, in overseas combat zones and even on large Navy ships where troops will make spare parts and systems like drones, trucks and small radios. “On demand, as needed, closer to the point of need,” said Marine logistics expert Lt. Col. Howard Marrotto. “That’s something we don’t have. We assume when we forward deploy, we bring every single thing we might need, just in case. The assumption today is that the supply chain may or may not support our needs.”

Marrotto said at the Deloitte forum that the Marine Corps needs help from the private sector to better grasp the economic incentives and the potential capabilities of digital manufacturing. “We need to understand where the technology is going, the art of the possible,” he said. The good news for the military is that incoming recruits are likely to be more familiar with 3D printing than their superiors. Kids are learning 3D printing in schools, which means a “ready workforce.”

The Marine maker movement appears to be gaining momentum. Four labs are being built and 25 “maker units” have been deployed in the United States and overseas. “Maker labs will be open to everyone, regardless of occupation, rank, or prior experience with design and prototyping,” declares the Marine Corps on its website. Maker units are equipped with a 3D printer or mini-mill along with a laptop and software to support design and production. A unit of any size or type may request support from Marine Corps Installation and Logistics to explore becoming a maker unit.

There is one lingering concern in military 3D printing: Protecting sensitive data from hackers and malware. How the military would bring cyber security into digital manufacturing so far has stirred “a lot of discussion but not a lot of action,” Marrotto said. The issue is how to protect a system’s “digital thread,” the term used in the industry for data associated with each product throughout the manufacturing lifecycle.

The Pentagon has not yet addressed this issue. Industry experts suggest the military could take a page from the Bitcoin currency world and create so-called “Blockchain” networks to ensure the integrity of the data. A Blockchain doesn’t stop cyberattacks but gives users tools to audit data for unauthorized changes.

About the Author

Sandra Erwin is a Senior Contributor to Defense Systems

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