3D Printing Drone Swarms, Part 1: UAVs So Far


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As we discuss in our ongoing 3D Printing Drone Swarms series, additive manufacturing (AM) will play an increasing role in the production of all manner of semi-sentient robots. This has been demonstrated by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are now being made in part with 3D printing for lightweight, custom designs. For this reason, we expect AM to be used for other drone-style bots as well, often for military purposes. 

At one point a significant proportion of all of North America’s 3D printing manufacturing capacity was devoted to making drone parts. A drone boom washed over the defense community and every branch needed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Global drones, drones for on ships, brigade-level drones, man packable drones, drones that fit in the palm of your hand, they were all being made.

With so many ongoing projects and the huge opportunity that the drone market represented, many firms were given contracts or made demonstrators to pitch for business. Many new iterations made these crafts better. Changes made it so that they could be adapted for use by the coast guard or that a new camera system could be added quickly to an existing airframe. When a number of these drone projects went into production they continued to be made with 3D printing.

Many components, such as fuel tanks, housings, and holders, were made with 3D printing in the prototype phase were now simply put into production. This was rather unique really and meant that, in the relatively low requirement, low standards environment of unmanned aircraft, we had a lot of 3D printed parts flying. 3D printing and drones are really a match made in heaven and, in this series, we’ll detail how drones are changing the face of modern warfare and just how 3D printing is playing a part in their development. We’ll also build a bit on the idea of drone swarms that I wrote about in 2016 and spoke about in a 2015 keynote. Then, we’ll see how drones are changing the face of the battlefield now across several theaters.

A Ryan Model 147 SC

This is an indicative list showing you:

What are drones useful for? 

  • Drones can be used to see beyond: the building, next hill, mountain range, or continent.
  • Drones can be used to look inside: the next room, the next building, or a room halfway across the world.
  • Drones can be platforms for sensors that can retrieve useful data.
  • Drones can be used to listen in to truck movements or to trace heat or to spot a particular vehicle or chemical.
  • Drones are used to obtain weather data for a particular place.
  • Drones can update your mapping with a picture taken yesterday.
  • Drones can be used to track individuals, units, or mass troop movements.
  • Drones can act as decoys by spreading chaff, by making noise imitating troop movements, or by impersonating missiles or aircraft.
  • Drones can bring real-time information to the individual warfighter, platoon commander, general or political leadership.
  • Drones can bomb or put missiles on target.
  • Drones can be used as “shock troops” or in difficult roles such as anti-SAM to aid regular fighters.
  • Drones can be used to guard, patrol, or loiter in areas of interest.
  • Drones can be shot down without losing a life on your side, which could make war more politically acceptable and let you use an air unit in a denied or tricky area.
  • Drones can be deniable.
  • Drones are an inexpensive way to do a certain air-related task: per flight hour or as a total investment.
  • Drone development is relatively low cost so specific drones can be made for very specific tasks.
  • Drones can be used to put specific equipment at a specific location.
  • Drones can be used to identify and designate targets “lighting them up” with lasers and the like.
  • Drones can be used as an area deniability weapon.
  • A drone can jam or block transmissions.
  • Drones can be used for logistics.
  • Drones can be used to insert an individual warfighter or group of fighters somewhere.
  • Drones can be used to extract people.
  • Drones can be used to lay in wait on the ground for example, and then ambush a force once it passes.
  • Drones are used as a deterrent to keep people from entering a certain area.

As we can see from the above list, there are a lot of uses for drones on the battlefield. We simply have a new way to fly that is less expensive overall than manned aircraft. Because this new way to fly brought in many new companies and initiatives, a lot more competition has lead to more contenders and additional positive effects on innovation and made them more fit for purpose.

The drone development initiatives have skirted the biggest Pentagon fat cat trough-filling desires because solutions were needed quickly and budgets were often constrained. So, in the U.S. for example, there are some remarkably low-cost platforms in many different roles. As per Wikipedia from 2014, the U.S. had “7,362 RQ-11 Ravens; 990 AeroVironment Wasp IIIs; 1,137 AeroVironment RQ-20 Pumas; and 306 RQ-16 T-Hawk small UAS systems and 246 MQ-1 Predators and MQ-1C Gray Eagles; 126 MQ-9 Reapers; 491 RQ-7 Shadows; and 33 RQ-4 Global Hawk.” The Black Hornet Nano fits in your palm and can be used to enter buildings while the Global Hawk or the Grey Eagle can fly across the world.

These high-tech drone systems have been released by the U.S. for over 25 years first entering into public service in the 1990s. Their sheer numbers and range of roles, plus the fact that three decades or more of work has gone into them, could surprise you.

A Black Hornet Nano

The biggest surprise really is just how long drones have been in service and just how effective drones have been. The Vietnam War saw considerable deployments of recon drones by U.S. forces. In 1966, the U.S. used a Ryan Model 174 Long Arm as bait for a sophisticated Soviet air defense system, the S-75. The S-75, which was downing American planes in their scores, fired at the drone and destroyed it. Just before this, however, the drone’s sensors picked up the S-75’s fuzing signal, which was used to make a U.S. airborne warning system against the missiles,  the AN/APR 26. This system warned pilots that the missile has been launched and was targeting them, letting them avoid it. The use of drones in this way was critical to the US war effort in Vietnam as “the S-75 shot down 1,046 aircraft, or 31% of all downed US aircraft.”

Other countries used Ryan Model 174 Lightning Bugs, as well:

“Syria said today that its air defenses had shot down two Israeli pilotless drones over Syrian positions in eastern Lebanon and southwest Syria. An Israeli military spokesman in Tel Aviv confirmed the loss of one pilotless plane. Israel has been using drones to test the radar frequencies and reactions of Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries and to provide televised aerial reconnaissance of Syrian positions, according to Western military sources.” This quote could be from a few weeks ago, but it is actually from the New York Times, December 7th, 1983.

Drones played a huge part in Israel’s conflict with Syria in 1982, allowing radar systems and SAM sites to be found and eliminated as well as providing accurate reconnaissance data. In the Bekaa Valley drones were sent in and these were targeted by Syrian air defense systems. Once the Syrian radars had lit up and once missiles had been fired at the drones, Israel was able to accurately target and eliminate the complete air defense system of the area in Operation Mole Cricket using their own Mastiff and Scout UAVs.

While this was going on, Israel had already lost a quarter of its ordinance and a quarter of its fighter jets, and this mission was crucial to Israel’s win. Given the U.S. struggles with Vietnamese/Russian air defense systems previously, Israel’s victory in the air over the Bekaa valley had a huge impact on shaping the future of Air War, culminating in extensive jamming, locating, and destruction campaign by the U.S. in the Iraq War eliminating one of the world’s most extensive air defenses completely before the ground war.

Israel used drones much earlier to great effect, as well, perhaps using it for extensive reconnaissance in 1969 and maybe during the Six Day War. What is more certain is that the country used an improved version of the Ryan Firebee drone in the Yom Kippur war in 1973 to great effect.

On the second day of the war, the Israeli Air Force deployed their fleet of armed Firebees to lead attacks against Egyptian air defenses along the Suez. The Egyptians fired their entire inventory of surface-to-air missiles at the Firebees—43 missiles in all. The Firebees successfully evaded 32 of the missiles and destroyed 11 with their Shrike anti-radar missiles.”

Or another example when “one Firebee is reputed to have drawn the fire of 32 missiles and returned to its home base intact.”

A Northrop Chukar

Another simpler drone, the Northrop Chukar, was also very effective.

“23 of the Chukars were launched, 18 returned and 5 fell. Each group of between two and four of the UAVs drew 20-25 Egyptian rockets, demonstrating the effectiveness of the system.”

An Israeli Scout UAV

This was a pivotal moment in the use of drones in combat. Later on in 1992, “one of the squadron’s Scouts participated in an attack on a convoy of Hizballah vehicles, in which Sheikh Abbas al-Musawi, the organization’s secretary-general, was killed. The UAV was used to locate the vehicle, for targeting, and to report the results of the strike.”

This was a pioneering use of the drone in a targeted killing. Once used only as dumb, targeting devices towed behind aircraft in the 1950s, drones became war winners in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s and became the instrument in the forever war “against terrorism” after that in the 2000s. And around that time the future of 3D printing became tightly intertwined with the future of drone warfare.

Drone warfare makes war more accessible and lowers cost. Thousands of civilians have been killed by drone strikes worldwide as UAVs enter theaters of war where the opposition is embedded with civilians. While they reduce the loss of life in pilots, paradoxically drones may make it more likely that strikes will happen because the political cost of sending in a drone is lower than sending in an airplane. I’m not advocating that drones and related developments are a good thing or that their progress should be universally cheered on. Drones are, however, a reality, and, as we shall see in the rest of this series, they are becoming more important to both warfare and 3D printing.

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