Home News Military wants to 3-D print robots, drones, thousands of spare parts

Military wants to 3-D print robots, drones, thousands of spare parts


Marine aircraft parts

April 02–Say you’re a service member sent on a mission into hostile territory. You’d like to have a drone to keep an eye out for ambushes. Maybe there’s one on hand, but it’s not quite right for the job. Or maybe there’s nothing available at all.

Researchers at Aberdeen Proving Ground want to help, and they think 3-D printing is the answer.

By giving servicemembers kits of electronic parts, and equipping bases with the printers, they envision a future in which in the field could build their own drones in a matter of hours.

It’s already possible to print a drone in a day. Eric Spero, an engineer at the Research Laboratory, said the approach would enable units in the field to adapt on the go.

“Going from nothing to a flying vehicle within 24 hours is pretty amazing,” Spero said.

The 3-D-printed drone is just one example of how the emerging manufacturing technology is letting commanders rethink how they equip . Officials hope that printing gear will give front-line fighters more say in the equipment they carry, make it easier and far cheaper to repair aging vehicles, and minimize the impact when enemies cut supply lines.

And by enabling the to make what it needs in-house, the technology also has the potential to reshape the relationship between defense contractors and the government.

Capt. Frank Futcher, who is working to make 3-D printing widely available to sailors, foresees systems deployed on ships around the world, churning out parts on demand.

“It’s transformative,” he said. “We need to stay ahead of the curve and figure out how we’re going to implement this as quickly as possible.”

The technology can cut both ways. While there is interest across the in the potential for printing, its adoption by America’s enemies and rivals could present major challenges.

Retired Col. T.X. Hammes, a researcher at the National Defense University, said the combination of 3-D printing and other technologies, such as cheap cellphones and more powerful explosives, could cut into the advantage offered by fighter jets or submarines that cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

“All of these things are coming together very, very quickly, and that changes power structures,” Hammes said.

In a recent paper, Hammes said a 3-D printing plant could cheaply churn out tens of thousands of drones a day, which could be used as flying bombs guided by cellphones to strike U.S. aircraft sitting on runways. The printers would not only build the drones, but make it much easier to manufacture a key component used in improvised explosive devices.

“It shifts the power,” he said. “How do you protect every airfield in the world?”

The ability to print objects in three dimensions — more properly called additive manufacturing — has been around since the 1980s. But patents have expired in recent years, unleashing a wave of innovation.

Commercial printers, available for a few hundred dollars each, squirt hot plastic layer by layer to build up an object.

“Think of it as building a loaf of bread one slice at a time,” said Brad Ruprecht, a technician at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

In a space once used to teach how to maintain vehicles, Ruprecht oversees a collection of large and much more sophisticated 3-D printers.

In one room, there’s a machine that works like an inkjet printer. It can print in several shapes and materials at once. It uses ultraviolet light to turn liquids solid, forming layers much thinner than a human hair. Last week, its printing head moved back and forth as a gas-mask emerged beneath.

A machine nearby used lasers to turn powdered nylon into strong bars of solid plastic. Motors whined as mirrors fluttered backward and forward to guide the laser melting the plastic. A roller pushed a fresh layer of powder over the top, before the laser made another pass.

Elsewhere, a pair of machines shot laser beams into a pool of plastic goo, turning liquid into solid parts for a model vehicle.

The engineers at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center have had access to the printers for decades, but branch chief Rick Moore said demand for the quick turnaround jobs for which the machines are suited has boomed in recent years.

“After 9/11, things changed and we had our hands in a lot of different projects,” he said.

The Edgewood team used 3-D printing to help build a system to destroy a stockpile of chemical weapons in Syria, to make a prototype kit for detecting bomb-making materials that is now being used in the field, and to design a gadget for reading medical test results.

The has also been exploring the possibilities. Futcher said mobile labs are deployed on three ships, getting sailors used to the idea of designing their own parts. In one case, the printed molds for metal filters to go on torpedo tubes. Before 3-D printing, they had been cannibalizing parts from decommissioned submarines.

Currently, the use of 3-D printing is limited mostly to the design phase of a new product or making spare parts. The printers in some cases are still slower than traditional manufacturing methods, the size of parts is limited by the size of the printer and the layering means the finished product can have weaknesses.

The has shown that some parts of a rocket engine can be printed. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University are testing whether they perform as well as the components currently in use.

“We’ve got a little bit of figuring out to do,” said Peter Zeender, a researcher at Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering.

Defense industry analysts said 3-D printing is still a ways off from upending how the shops. But contractors are thinking through the implications. officials and business leaders plan to meet this spring to figure out how the would buy data to print urgently needed parts.

Mark Vitale, a consultant at Deloitte, which is to be involved in the session, described the underlying concept as “let’s replace inventory with information.”

The technology is growing more sophisticated. One approach that has Ruprecht and Moore excited would be much faster and essentially do away with the layers; another uses robotic arms to make much bigger parts. Engineers are looking at how 3-D printing can be used to make finished products.

Scott Thompson, an aerospace and defense expert at the consulting firm PwC, said the will likely be able to design and build small systems on its own, but won’t be able to cut contractors out completely.

“When it comes to major weapons systems, they still need the major contractors’ engineering talent,” he said.

Jason Phillips, a engineer, recently designed and built a six-legged robot for a 3-D printathon, going from an initial design to finished prototype in just over a month. More than 90 percent of the foot-long bot was printed, he said, including moving parts and gears.

The creature attracted interest at the event. Phillips wants to continue work on the project, which he figures could be useful to SEALs operating in hazardous environments.

“The best benefit of additive manufacturing is being able to test stuff,” Phillips said. “You have a lot more freedom in what you’re able to build.”

Spero’s team at Aberdeen Proving Ground has been selected to demonstrate its 3-D printed drones at an exercise next year. He said that showing their ideas to a wider audience should give team members a sense of how much interest there is among in having custom-built tools for specific missions.

“That’s very practical feedback we’re expecting,” he said.

David Sheffler, a researcher at the University of Virginia, is also working with the on printing drone parts. In 2014, his team demonstrated that it could print a drone that could be launched by hand and replicate the abilities of the RQ-11 Raven used by the .

“We’re able to print these things at a ridiculously reduced cost,” Sheffler said.

The Raven system costs $173,000, according to the . Sheffler says his drone cost only $2,500 and can be put together in about 36 hours. During most of that time, Sheffler said, he can be “sleeping, drinking coffee and watching TV” as the printer does it job.

The next step is to give the drone the ability to take off vertically; to be fully autonomous, so it can fly itself around the battlefield even if its connection to the GPS system is cut off; and to carry out precise landings — on the back of a Humvee, for example.

Sheffler says 3-D printing remains a long way from the manufacturing techniques now used to make planes. And in a video released by the university, his prototype crashed on launch several times. But he can always make another one without spending too much money; they are cheap enough to be considered almost disposable.

“You lose one of ours, you don’t care,” Sheffler said.


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