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3D Printing Drone Swarms Part Five: The Future Now

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As we have seen in previous installments of this series, the use of drones in war has lead to huge successes on the battlefield since 1982. These successes have not only been for the great powers of our age. Countries in some of the most contested and dangerous areas of the world also have been incredibly successful with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Non-state actors have also been trying to weaponize drones as they grow more widespread and less expensive. At the same time, UAVs are often developed and contain 3D printed parts and have benefited significantly from 3D printing, meaning that our futures are intertwined. This opens up legal, moral, and ethical dilemmas for us as an industry.

This is all the more so because UAVs are currently undergoing a significant investment worldwide. Nations ever on the brink of war are building them, developing them, and sharing them with their allies. Superpowers are making much more capable drones, while others are trying to weaponize $200 kits. Above, we can see the MQ 25, a UAV that will be carrier-based and could perhaps be used to refuel other jets. Below, we can see the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie, a new Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology class drone capable of Mach 5. It has been designed for loyal wingman missions that will see it escort fighters and perform scouting missions or take a missile for other more expensive (or human piloted) aircraft kamikaze-style.

The rather thin-looking Airbus you can see below is the Zephyr, a solar electric drone that weighs less than 75 kilos and has a 25-meter wingspan. The Zephyr is capable of flying for months at 70,000ft, and is a HAPS (high altitude pseudo satellite). The Zephyr can be used for surveillance imaging as a sensor platform or perhaps to loiter at great height and drop munitions when ready. Above the weather and most anti-aircraft solutions, it can be seen as a taskable satellite that may get you that jamming or reconnaissance ability where you need it.

Below, you can see a commercially available drone used by ISIS. This is something that the industry “laments”, but seems to be able to do little against. Below that, we can see a handmade UAV made in the theater by ISIS. Rough, sure, but ready, as well.

Centcom image of a drone used by ISIS

An ISIS drone made in the field.

Drone development, therefore, will occur on many levels at many price points with many different designs and capabilities. The best conceptual way to think of a drone in my mind is: it used to be that there needed to be a straight line between you and the person you were shooting. Whether it is pictures, bombs or bullets drones mean that the shooting can come at any time from anywhere. So, an individual could make a UAV in the kitchen for $200 that is capable of dropping a bomb; a drug gang could use it for surveillance’ an individual soldier could shoot around the corner; or a drone could be quietly parked somewhere listening in and ready to strike. UAVs can be quickly assembled and made in theater or even in an austere environment. Drones, especially if we combine them with 3D printing, can also be quickly adapted to the local environment. If we take all of this in, we can come to a few key concepts and scenarios that illustrate how drones will play an outsized part in warfare going forward.

Drone Swarms: Already utilized to some extent in the field with the Abqaiq-Khurais attack, a swarm of drones strikes a target overwhelming its defenses. Imagine an attack from all sides simultaneously with hundreds of targets. Most targeting systems will just not be able to cope at some point. Hit a ship or oil facility and numerous small fires could easily become a blaze. If your amazing radar can acquire 200 targets, the enemy will just put 300 drones in the air simultaneously. If used against critical installations or aircraft carriers, a considerable amount of time and cost could be put into the drones in order to assault such a target. Individually, the drones would not have to be so complex, but collectively they could sweep over many targets.

Drone Guard: Imagine a roster of drones that patrol an area. Each one is an autonomous loitering munition, but, rather than be single-use, the device returns to base to be replaced by a new one once it has run out of fuel. Every 100 meters, a different loitering munition flies in a pattern. With an entire fleet, the area is covered 24/7. If something larger than a square meter moves below the vehicle, the munition engages it. This turns a set of drones into an area deniability weapon or something that could automatically protect your flank. Or you could move the fleet forward, using it as an advancing line.

Drone Only: For many years, the U.S. has examined a No Boots on the Ground-like policy. In extremis, this would look a whole lot like the Terminator universe. Generally, however, just because it has been said before doesn’t mean we don’t need to say it again: drones can make it more likely that democratic powers go to war. Rather than be forced to negotiate or to find creative solutions to global conflicts, “send in the drones” would be a way to satisfy the polls for a ruling party to quickly seem to maintain authority. At no human cost to you, it may even widen the gulf of empathy between Us and Them. What is the fallout? There is no risk of dead people on your side or any complexities. Just a button to push, which is the easiest solution.

No Press = No Atrocity: If you instantly strike at a village 15,000 miles away, there will not be any press there. In fact, the place may never have and will never have a press presence. If you hit a school, the children will be long buried and the mess repaired before an intrepid reporter gets there. But, why would a reporter go there? This is just one in a long line of strikes that month. This could mean that your government is committing a long string of My Lais, but without anyone to witness and bring back information about those massacres.

Criminal Use of Drones: So far, some cartels have used drones for observation and transport, but they could afford to invest much more. The drone could be the weapon that gets them to be a “near peer” to their local government. The technology is so accessible and powerful that it may only be a matter of time.

Continuous Iteration: If you show up to fight me and your drones, missiles, and defenses stay the same for the two years that we are fighting, but I continuously improve all of my equipment, then I will win. With 3D printing I can design and develop new versions of existing drones that are better than the previous ones, meaning that, at some point, I will outperform.

Crowdsourcing War: If you want the best designs then get your people at home to design the best drones for every theater and every opponent. Better than buying a war bond, this will get everyone involved and let the brightest minds help the frontline troops. On a similar vein, I’m curious to see if anyone will let civilians pilot drones.

All Transport: As many as six people in the field are getting supplies to the frontline soldier. In some cases a frontline soldier could cost $1 million a day to maintain. With every mile, more gas will be needed to get more vehicles to protect more gas moving more gas for that one team in the boondocks. Drone transport is now seen as a niche solution, but what if a large volume of material were delivered from a safe area direct to the frontline? You could have vastly fewer people in-country. You’d need a big base near the country and some hard points in it, but your footprint would be much less for the same number of frontline soldiers. What’s more, you wouldn’t have 100 facilities to protect, but just five. Sure, drone transport is expensive, but so is the huge number of logistics people that you have and need to protect.

In-theater Production: Ideally, you’d like to upgrade, manufacture, and repair your drones as close to the frontline. And what is the best solution to making all manner of parts locally? You guessed it, 3D printing. It’s almost inevitable to me that the U.S. or other large powers will look to our industry’s technology to help them produce drones in-country and repair them in or near forward operating areas. Already a number of containerized fablabs have been a success. The future in my mind is inexorable. If the U.S. and its allies begin to do this, tinderbox countries and non-state actors will do it more than they have as well.

In my mind, our future and that of the drone is one. I think that this is something that we need to talk about and think about now, instead of tomorrow.

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