US Army testing technology to 3D print mission-specific drones on demand

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Custom drones to suit different missions could one day be 3D-printed by soldiers in the field(Credit: Cpl. Tyler S. Giguere.com/CC2.0)

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For troops out in the field, an ability to quickly call on different drones with different capabilities could prove invaluable in securing a mission's success, but logistically speaking this isn't very practical – yet. An upcoming experiment to be carried out by the US Army will see researchers test technologies that would allow platoons to 3D print drones tailored specifically to their real-time objectives.

The project is part of the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments, which pulls early-stage technologies out of the lab and into field tests for soldiers to assess their progress. The idea behind this particular experiment is to combine both drone and 3D printing technologies to provide support for small, decentralized units working in complex settings.

Military drones can be used for many kinds of recon purposes, such as surveillance, scouting out potential enemies beyond the next hill, investigating sites for weapons of mass destruction and collecting forensic data. But depending on the task at hand, different aircraft may be fitted with different sensors and performance specifications to give the mission the best chance of success.

The Army Research Laboratory's Vehicle Technology Directorate has designed software that allows soldiers to generate mission-specific drone solutions ahead of a mission or when unexpected circumstances arise. After inputting mission requirements, a computer-aided model of a drone is generated and then a 3D-printed structure is produced. This is then combined with off-the-shelf parts taken from an inventory to create a ready-to-fly drone.

"The idea is, soldiers load the mission into the design system and overnight the system creates a UAS (unmanned aerial system) that will meet those mission parameters," says Dr. Mark Valco, director of the Vehicle Technology Directorate. "That is completely different than the way we do things now. We're heading in a new direction, not only with the design of UAVs, but in the design philosophy and the systems that fabricate them."

In addition to lightening the load by building the customized aircraft on location, other benefits could include lower costs and greater flexibility. But Valco cautions that deploying such technologies in actual missions is not going to happen anytime soon, with advances in material science and 3D printing first needed to make it feasible in the battlefield.

"This is not a solution for today," he says. "Innovation is the key. We're demonstrating a capability, but we need to evolve design tools, higher-grade materials and the ability to print faster. Our researchers are continually looking for opportunities to enable these new capabilities."

The experiment is not expected to be carried out for a year or so, in which time the team will work with other researchers within the US Army to produce a working prototype.

Source: US Army

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