U.S. Army Turns to 3-D Printing Tech to Create Mission Specific Drones.

The Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments Campaign of Experimentation (AEWE) is an annual unclassified group of experiments that puts cutting edge tech directly into the hands of soldiers for early feedback.  Of the 50 or so participating technologies many are what you might expect: telescoped weapons, laser warning systems for combat vehicles, mine detectors, and door breaching cartridges. But a surprising platform stands out–a mobile on-demand design and manufacturing system.

“We saw the trajectories of two beneficial technology areas converging in the future….3-D printing and small unmanned aircraft systems, sometimes referred to as drones,” says Eric Spero an acting team lead in the Army Research Lab Vehicle Technology Directorate. “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.”

The theory goes like this: a soldier requires a specific task, say investigating a potential weapons of mass destructions site. He needs hover-flight capability and needs to get through some complex obstacles. The soldier could use this tech to create a drone specific for this mission and have it ready overnight.  This on-demand design process would give increased flexibility, better cost, ready availability and offer additional applications outside of drones.

In 2014 the University of Virginia debuted the technology for 3-D printed drones on a project for the Department of Defense. They were able to print a plane, named the Razor, in under 31 hours that could fly at 40 mph for as long as 45 minutes. The plane cost under $800. These types of projects are now referred to as ODSUAS (on-demand small unmanned aircrafts systems). Printing time is down to under 24 hours, and speed is up to 55mph. Improvements are being implemented to reduce noise, increase agility, and to raise payload capacity.

In addition to helping the soldier this 3-D tech could save costs in tech upgrades and repairs. “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,” Spero says.

The Army is using 3-D tech in other interesting ways as well, such as matching advanced materials with a single printer. One printer could use multi-material printing to create metal automotive parts and ceramic-based body armor. Rapid printing is being explored to continuously create complicated parts on-site like plastic washers and treads for robotic vehicles. On-demand printing is also being used to create specific tools, like a wrench to repair a broken generator. The Army is only just beginning to realize the potential for 3-D tech on and off the battlefield.

Chris Force

Travel & Design Writer
Chris Force writes about culture and design. He is the award-winning editor of six books, and has edited several anthologies on modern architecture and design. Contact him at chris@chrisforce.com.