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US Army and Marines Apply 3D Printing to Drone and Flight Applications

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Army researcher John Gerdes works with Marines and 3D printed drones at Camp Lejeune [Image: US Army/David McNally]

3D printing has become prolific in the military, being used for various applications and across divisions. Now two of the US military’s branches are teaming up for the development of 3D printed drones.

“Several years ago when we were collaborating with our academic partner, Georgia Tech, we had this project where we were focusing on design engineering of small unmanned aircraft systems,” said Eric Spero, a team lead within the Army Research Laboratory’s (ARL) Vehicle Technology Directorate.

The idea was to enable soldiers to custom design drones for specific missions using an app, and then to 3D print them within 24 hours. Spero and his team brought the project to life as part of the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment (AEWE), which gives soldiers access to new technologies. Researchers from the ARL then reached out to the Marines, knowing that the Marines had been working with 3D printed drones, and began developing a software catalog that would allow users to choose and 3D print a drone for their specific mission needs.

“We have interacted with Marines who have never touched an unmanned system before to Marines who are experts in unmanned aerial flight,” said ARL engineer Larry “LJ” R. Holmes Jr. “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 turn around.”

Lance Cpl. Nicholas Hettinga, 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, prepares to pilot a 3-D printed unmanned aircraft system, or drone, during a Sept. 27, 2017, test flight at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina [Image: US Army/David McNally]

The Marines expected that turnaround to be days or weeks, but the ARL showed them that it could be anywhere from minutes to hours. The researchers said they plan to streamline their processes based on feedback from the Marines to optimize situational awareness.

“Things like additive manufacturing with materials, artificial intelligence and machine learning, unmanned systems technologies, these will enable us to bring together the capabilities that will allow the future Soldiers and Marines the decisive edge that they need in the battlefield,” said Elias Rigas, a Division Chief in ARL’s Vehicle Technology Directorate.

Below, you can see a documentary about the drone project:

The Marines have been working on their own 3D printing projects in addition to collaborating with the Army on 3D printed drones. Capt. Christopher R. Preusser, the Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 11 aviation safety officer, recently developed a quick-charge docking station (QCDS) using 3D printing, for example, and the device has caught on across multiple squadrons.

Christopher Preusser demonstrates the design of his docking station [Image: Master Sgt. Christine Polvorosa]

“I don’t recall exactly how I came across 3D printing, but when I did, it sparked an immediate interest and blossomed from there,” said Preusser, who built a quick-charge docking station (QCDS) using a 3D printer, plastic and wiring. “So when the program gained attention, I had already been experimenting with 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, at my house and built my own 3D printer.”

The docking station can charge multiple slam sticks, which are pressure-measuring devices required by all Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 tactical aircraft and training units that fly the T-45 Goshawk aircraft. A slam stick measures ambient pressure within the cockpit and will capture data in the event of a decompression.

“Then, once the aircraft is back to home station or wherever it lands, [personnel] can pull that data from the device and it will all be used to triage the aircrew. The flight surgeon and medical professionals will be able to identify how many atmospheric pressure differences the aircrew were exposed to, and that data will be used to identify which dive chamber to put [aircrew] in,” Preusser said. “Additionally, based off information gathered, maintenance personnel can then use the data to troubleshoot a suspected component in the aircraft or the environmental control system to help identify what was the causal factor in losing pressure in the cockpit.”

Over a year ago, MAG-11 squadrons received 12 slam sticks for the collection of cockpit pressurization data. Each came with a three-foot-long USB cord but no connector to plug into a power source, so they all just became a tangled mess. So Preusser designed a docking station with 12 charging ports that use one cord to connect to a power source. So far he has 3D printed six of the docking stations, which are in use by multiple squadrons.

“The docking station is printed upside down, and the charger itself is one piece with 12 smaller USB cords woven inside and linked to its specific chamber. It’s easy to put together,” said Preusser. “The time it takes to build varies based on detail desired, but the standard design takes about 50 hours of continuous printing at .1 mm levels.”

According to Preusser, the design has plenty of room for modification and customization.

[Image: Master Sgt. Christine Polvorosa]

“If this device is tailored with an external USB port coming out of it so it could be connected to the maintenance computer, all of the slam sticks would be networked to that computer at once,” he said. “Software is developed now on the maintenance computer so as soon as the slam sticks are plugged into it, it will automatically pull that data, make any needed software updates or give it a new GPS time hack.”

Preusser has a strong interest in 3D printing, and he says that he wanted to create something that would benefit people.

“I saw this as an opportunity to tinker with something I knew people would use, and it would benefit them,” he said. “If you can think it, draw it, design it, you can print it, and I enjoy doing just that.”

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts below. 

[Sources: Army / Marines]


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