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U.S. Army testing 3D-printed mission-specific drones

Fri 19 Feb 2016

The U.S. Army has selected a proposal for incorporating 3D printed, mission-specific drones in its next round of field experimentation. Annually, the Army conducts Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments, or AEWE, to conduct technology demonstrations in a live, observable test event. The idea is to put technology that the government is considering for deployment into the hands of the end user in a test situation for ‘live, credible’ feedback.

The AEWE 2017, to be held early next year in Fort Benning, Georgia, will include demonstrations of 50 different technological innovations – 14 from governmental researchers and 30 from industry. On-Demand Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems was an idea submitted by a team of Army researchers in the Army Research Lab Vehicle Technology Directorate.

arl-drone-specific-missionThe idea to merge 3-D printing capabilities with drone, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), is one that is expected to have many advantages. A built-to-order UAS would allow for a more reactive response in complex environments. It could be used to scout ahead for threat detection, or 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,” team lead Eric Spero wrote in the white paper proposal submitted to the AEWE selection committee.

Advantages other than flexibility of design are increased availability and lower cost. “Our technology is not about UASs,” he said. “It’s about the capability to design and build on-demand. 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.”

Dr. Mark Valco, director of the Vehicle Technology Directorate appreciated that providing custom-fabricated drones where they are needed, comprising only necessary components, would reduce inventory and overhead requirements that represents a radical departure from current methods. “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.” He did note, however, that the use of 3-D printed, mission-specific UAS vehicle was a vision of the future, rather than a current reality. “This is not a solution for today,” he said. “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.”

Although the AEWE is a year away, teams are selected well in advance to allow for the complex preparations and testing required to bring a working prototype to the event. The ARL has partnered with Georgia Tech’s Aerospace System Design Labs to create the hardware and software outlined in the proposal.


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