3D printed drone

3-D printing on the fly

3-D printing has been used to create everything from tools for astronauts on the International Space Station to electronics and jet wings.  And now a team at the Army Research Laboratory wants to use 3-D printing to build on the fly -- literally.

The plan is to get small 3-D printed unmanned aerial vehicles into the hands of soldiers so that they can create customized solutions to the problems they face in the field.  “We saw the trajectories of two beneficial technology areas converging,” said Eric Spero, an acting team lead in the ARL Vehicle Technology Directorate.  “Our technology is not about UAS,” he said, but rather “about the capability to design and build on-demand.”

“Small UAS can also be used 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,” Spero said.

The software used to produce these vehicles consists of a simple interface in which users enter vehicle requirements, such as sensing packages or endurance, according to ARL’s partners at Georgia Tech's Aerospace Systems Design Lab. A design is created, and the drawings are generated for the 3-D printer. A technician uses off-the-shelf parts gathered from inventory, electronics and the 3-D printed parts to assemble the drone.   

Speaking to the flexibility, cost and availability such a capability would provide, Spero said: “Small components are procured and assembled into a vehicle.  The vehicle is relatively easy to repair or replace, or can be disposed of. The level of maintenance is driven by how long you want to [use] a particular vehicle solution.”

Spero said the on-demand approach also helps to avoid obsolescence. When newer components become available on the market, or when mission needs change, each can be incorporated into the software with little delay.

The 3-D printed drone will be demonstrated at the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments January and February of 2017.  "This is not a solution for today," said Mark Valco, director of the Vehicle Technology Directorate. "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."

Video from Georgia Tech's Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory showing the generation of new multicopter designs in response to updated requirements entered in a spreadsheet.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.


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