Let it be known that the U.S. Army is all-in on 3D printing. Earlier this year the Army revealed that they had created an M203 grenade launcher called R.A.M.B.O. primarily from 3D-printed parts. The grenades shot from the R.A.M.B.O. were also created through additive manufacturing. Now, it’s been announced that the army is testing systems that would allow soldiers in the field to 3D-print drone parts on-demand, catering each to the mission as circumstances dictate.
On-demand drones created through the relatively speedy, customizable processes afforded by additive manufacturing would be a military game-changer. Prototypes of these devices, referred to by the army as “3D-printed aviation assets” or On-Demand Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) have already been tested, and reports have confirmed that ambitions for the 3D-printed drone program are high. An ‘Amazon-like’-catalog of different drone prototypes would be made available via-tablet to soldiers in the field. Upon selecting a model, the soldiers would have their drone of choice printed and assembled at the nearest base and returned in a matter of hours.
Further down the line, it is hoped that soldiers would have the freedom to customize specific parts of a drone in accordance with a given mission’s requirements. The minutes or hours in which a 3D-printed drone could be assembled rivals the days or weeks it previously took to manufacture such a device. In no field could such turnaround be more consequential than the military. One of the army’s initial forays into 3D-printed drones came last year, with the concept and prototype derived from within its own ranks.
The Scout, a fixed-wing drone which fits into a standard Marine backpack, was designed by a 26-year-old Marine corporal as part of the Corps’ internal Logistics Innovation Challenge. It cost $600 to produce and was foretelling of the army’s increasing interest in drones and other weaponry created through additive manufacturing. The concept of on-demand drones has appeal amongst marines with aviation experience as well as those without.
We have interacted with Marines who have never touched an unmanned system before to Marines who are experts in unmanned aerial flight, engineer Larry “LJ” Holmes Jr. said. Across the board, they all seemed to be very interested in the topic of being able to manufacture a tool that they can use that was mission specific and has a turnaround.