3D Printing Drone Swarms 16: Phoenix Ghost and the Future of Custom Weapons

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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. We are also not advocating for the use of 3D printing for the manufacturing of weapons or military equipment, but are highlighting this as a likely inevitability. 

Recently, the US announced that it will quickly allow Ukraine to use its Phoenix Ghost drones. According to a senior defense official, “The Phoenix Ghost… was rapidly developed by the Air Force, in response, specifically to Ukrainian requirements. This is a great example of adapting to their needs in real time.”

Other reports have specified that the Phoenix Ghost was created for an analogous assignment and adapted for Ukraine. Another story quotes an officials as saying that the design of the craft was “based on talking to the Ukrainians about what they need. It’s very much tied to the fight that they’re in, in the Donbas and what that region, from a terrain perspective, portends for the use of force.”

Regardless of how exactly it was developed and deployed, the fast process of moving this unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from the R&D labs and to the frontlines points to agility in engineering and deployment.

IAI´s Harop loitering munition. Image courtesy of IAI.

Many know that the U.S. military’s procurement system is broken. The military spends way too much money waiting far too long to get the kit it wants. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced militaries to react quickly. Many are trying to balance Ukraine’s needs with maintaining reserves. Others wish to provide equipment, but not the latest and greatest.

The situation in Ukraine is also unique, with the nation’s defenders facing a specific enemy behaving in a specific way with specific methods, training and equipment. Indeed every conflict is unique because of situation-specific doctrines, enemy actions, the weather, the climate, level of training of the combatants, infrastructure and many other influential factors.

Could 3D printing be an ideal solution to improve materiel so that it better meets current requirements?

Silent Thunder, a loitering munition by Athlon Avia. Image courtesy of Athlon Avia.

In our 3D Printing Drone Swarms series we’ve looked at 3D printing missiles, loitering munitions, the democratization of drones, war winners and more. On the whole, the conclusions of this series so far is that 3D printing is playing an increased role on the battlefield, especially in unmanned aerial, underwater, and ground vehicles. Why is 3D printing so important for the future of drones?

  1. Drones are new craft and 3D printing has demonstrably and repeatedly been used to make prototype components that have subsequently been used on the final vehicle. This saves in time-to-market and costs.
  2. Making new vehicles can be accelerated with 3D printing because parts are quicker to go from design to final part.
  3. More iterations and the flexibility of 3D printing can lead to agile engineering, whereby craft are improved during the development process or as per requirements and findings. This de-risks product development and makes it faster to market.
  4. The same base vehicle can quickly be adapted for new payloads, new tenders, or to new versions through the fast addition of 3D printed components.
  5. 3D printing is less expensive and faster when developing new products generally. This becomes especially important when flying prototypes are used to win projects that are then used to build the final vehicle. This is comparatively quick and low cost with 3D printing.
  6. With 3D printing we can design components that are of low mass when compared to conventional components. This makes craft more maneuverable, can increase payloads, can increase range and can make craft more survivable.
  7. We can also integrate functionality with 3D printing, with a housing transforming into a fastener as well.
  8. On top of this, we can also reduce part count generally—either through integrating functionality or by simply combining an assembly into a single component. This reduces capital needed and costs, makes iteration quicker, and can improve the form factor of the vehicle.
  9. Drones themselves are generally low volume and in that scenario, with relatively few parts, 3D printing is extra valuable and effective.

On the whole, we can see that 3D printing is a natural technology for drone development. It saves costs on product design and can reduce development time. But, there is one very important consideration that is often overlooked. By making a production process more agile and accelerating time to market, it’s possible to make customized versions of a vehicle more quickly.

Up until now, the military has tried to standardize everything from shoes to aircraft. It needs to be prepared for a wide array of theaters, missions, and scenarios. So standardization makes sense. But, if we know and understand the battlefield, it should be possible to customize a vehicle to local conditions. Deployments can be accelerated and craft can be made more survivable by deploying 3D printing for tailor-made equipment. In effect, we can look at the role, landscape, climate and more, and customize a drone for the mission and theater.

AeroVironment´s Switchblade is another loitering munition. Image courtesy of AeroVironment.

In the case of the Phoenix Ghost, we’re dealing with a loitering munition that is meant to target artillery or armor. It could have a flight time of six hours and take off vertically. Imagine that this was made for a Middle Eastern climate and would not work well in Ukraine. With 3D printing, it could quickly be adapted to the local conditions.

Imagine new cameras were necessary to make a UAV state of the art. New housings could quickly be design for them. Imagine the craft needed a new payload to beat more heavily armored vehicles? New mounting or payload options could easily be enabled with 3D printing. Imagine that Ukrainian users find out that the drone needs to be more maneuverable. Some quick light weighting could be performed with 3D printing. Imagine that wet weather was grounding the planes. They could be upgraded with new components that weather seal the device. Or imagine that the U.S. has some top-of-the-line Phoenix Ghosts that are good but contain some very sensitive technology. The company could be asked to quickly take out some hardware and replace it with a simpler variant to enable its sale.

I think that we’re seeing a new age of warfare where, sadly, 3D printing will move to the frontline. The technology will, in turn make war more precise by tailoring drones to their current battle and terrain.

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