AMS Spring 2023

US Naval Research Lab’s Latest Version of Stackable CICADA Drone Features 3D Printed Fuselage

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No matter the user level, 3D printing and drones seem to go hand in hand—and the technology just keeps progressing. From camera drones to cargocopters to delivery services, it has become obvious that the potential for these machines—in all sizes—is definitely something to get excited about, as well as a bit wary. This technology represents change in many ways, from convenience to the way our military (and those of other countries also) operate.

Drones are popular for many reasons. These are machines we can send into the air and then control remotely. Obviously, that is enough for many enthusiasts—and especially with all the different types of cameras that can be used in the air, amazing photography ensuing. Drones can also serve an infinite amount of functions and services of which we have only begun to touch the surface. And with 3D printing, there are even more bonuses. Those behind the engineering of drones worldwide enjoy self-sustainability in manufacturing, speed in production, and best of all—big savings on the bottom line.

You would have to be on a pretty serious media and news boycott to miss out on all the different examples of military drones today; however, you may be surprised to find out how enthusiastic they have become about using 3D printing to make machines that are responsible for serious work on the part of the US government. The latest from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory involves a series of Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, known as CICADAs. The Navy has been working on these specialized drones since 2006, with their latest prototype, the MK5, shown in April.

[Photo: NRL]

The CICADA is meant to be dropped by air and will land within about 15 feet of its destination, gliding accurately into place via small ‘fins’ and a GPS. Each one weighs 65 grams and carries a small sensor payload, descending at 1,000 feet per minute with a glide ratio of 3.5.

The fuselage is 3D printed, reducing assembly time by humans. The goal is to make the process even faster though with the help of robots. Because of the affordability factor, these drones can be dropped in larger groups, operating as a very effective delivery system.

“These payloads could be interconnected to form an ad-hoc, self-configuring network. Communication nodes, sensors, or effectors can then be placed in a programmable geometric pattern in hostile territory without directly over-flying those regions or exposing human agents on the ground,” states the NRL.

Today they cost only $250 each—meaning that military sees them as valuable but also quite disposable. The latest CICADAs are the result of many different versions and refinements to the small drones, showing off improved stackability and wing design.

“I would really love to fly an airplane over and each of these [microdrones] could sample in the tornado. That’s ready now. We’d just need a ride. And [FAA] approval,” said Dan Edwards of the U.S. Naval Research Lab in a recent interview.

The drones are meant to be launched in a group but can be sent to different areas using their separate GPS systems. Their function is to send data (right now it may be meteorological in nature) via their sensors back to their control unit. They work dutifully until running out of battery power.

“With the CICADA MK5, we feel like most of the basic research is done,” said Edwards. “The autopilot works, the guidance works, we’ve shown different launch methods. Really, we’re looking for a customer who wants to commercialize this. The point of NRL is to do high risk development, understand and steer where the technology is going, and then transition those pieces of IP out to industry for manufacturing.”

[Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum]

The Navy is considering many different applications for the drones.

“Every time I show up at a trade show, or talk with people about CICADA, it’s ‘oh, could you do this?'” said Edwards. “Chemical and biological sensing is a very interesting idea. There are other electronics you could put in it for seismic sensing along a road. Really, the sky is the limit. It’s just a flying circuit board, so anything you can integrate at the component level is fair game.”

Let us know your thoughts in the CICADA Drone forum thread at 3DPB.com.

[Sources: NRLIEEE Spectrum]

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