The Marines have certainly been gaining steam as a force in 3D printing—of the useful sort. We’ve followed their progress, with multiple forays into the technology, even to include the use of a 3D printing hub. Other areas of the US military have been enjoying the benefits of 3D printing also, looking to the potential it holds for the future as new parts and prototypes can be made quickly and in a self-sustained fashion—something that is always very important for soldiers, especially if they are in remote areas.
Now, the Marines are stepping it up more than a notch though, using 3D printing to create surveillance drones. The technology has gained great momentum over the past few years for drone hobbyists and enthusiasts, with many different variations, from drones assisting in construction to researchers developing cargocopters. The ‘Nibbler,’ however, is meant to be used in combat for supplying the troops with needed resources.
“Our team is very enthusiastic about the Nibbler, but even more enthusiastic about what it represents for the future,” said Capt. Chris J. Wood, in charge of innovation efforts at the Marine Corps’ installations and logistics branch.
3D printing fits in with the Marines’ way of doing things, to include ‘adapting and overcoming.’
“Imagine being in a forward deployed environment, and just like Amazon, you can ‘order’ the weapons and equipment you need for the next day’s mission from an entire catalog of possible solutions,” Wood said. “These solutions can all be upgraded literally overnight, in order to integrate new components or adapt to new requirements. On a very small scale, Nibbler shows us that this is possible right now with the group 1 UAS family of systems.”
Wood sees 3D printing in the same light so many civilians around the world do, as well: “It represents a revolution in the future supply chain.”
Just as NASA has envisioned the benefits of 3D printing, so do the Marines. Rather than having to carry supplies to a location, they can just take the 3D printer and make them on-demand—offering local ‘small manufacturing capability.’The Marines will use this drone, along with other unmanned 3D printed aircraft, for surveillance.
“We can have a backpack-able fixed wing UAS for long endurance ISR. We can have a small quadcopter for building clearing operations,” Wood said. “We will forward deploy these capabilities into a combat zone as soon as possible.”
Affordability will of course play a big factor in the benefits enjoyed through 3D printing as well, even though their creations may cost more than some would expect.
“However, it is orders of magnitude less expensive than any military-use UAS with similar performance,” Wood said. “Ultimately, it’s about optimizing specific mission needs to the equipment we use to fight those missions. Additive manufacturing and localized manufacturing allows us to do this at a scale and speed never before seen.”
Currently four 3D printing labs are being constructed, with 25 maker units in use around the world—intended for use by soldiers of ‘any rank or occupation.’ Hacking and intellectual property protection are concerns though, and as both the technology and the Marines’ use of it progress, it will be interesting to see what develops in that area. Discuss in the 3D Printed Drone forum at 3DPB.com.[Sources: Defense Systems / DVIDS]