Interview: RapidFlight’s Drone 3D Printing Technology Takes Flight

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Mike Uffelman is a former A-10 pilot who transitioned to business development for Textron, working on the Scan Eagle and the Boeing Insitu RQ-21 Blackjack. Both the Scan Eagle and the RQ-21 are surveillance-oriented small tactical unmanned air systems (STUAS). He later worked for Gentex before joining RapidFlight six months ago. RapidFlight is a company bringing to life the drone swarm ideas we have written about extensively. The unmanned aerial systems, vehicles (UAS, UAV), and drone market has seen significant growth. From small first person view (FPV) drones to large globe-spanning aircraft, the market has become increasingly important in warfare and beyond.

RapidFlight aims to rapidly iterate, manufacture, and launch attritable drones. These affordable vehicles can be produced close to the battlefield and customized according to developing conditions on the ground. RapidFlight uses Fusion3 material extrusion 3D printers and has also acquired the intellectual property of the defunct car production firm Local Motors. The firm hopes to produce 28 Group 3 aircraft per month in containers and envision groups of these containers being deployed. The U.S. military has five distinct weight- and altitude-driven classes for drones weighing less than 600 kilos, flying at speeds below 250 knots (463 kph), and reaching a flight level of 180 (around 18,000 feet, or 5.4 km). These aren’t usually small craft, with wingspans and lengths of around 2 to 3 meters.

We got to interview Uffelman about RapidFlight to find out more about the firm. He tells us that RepidFlight has been around for three years.

“Our founders saw an opportunity for 3D drone printing and developed a number of specialized 3D printed techniques and technologies to enable drones to take on many mission sets and rapidly integrate new payloads into the aircraft. As the shape of the battlespace evolves and new technologies emerge, we can integrate new capabilities at low cost on a short schedule. We can integrate new payloads in days, even change the airframe shape, change surfaces, change attachments, change size, and be very flexible while having a scalable method of production.”

It’s easy to see how beguiling this vision is. More than just 3D printing drones at the point of need, we can modify them to accommodate a new sensor, missile, or communications package. Need more radar? A new jamming package making you invulnerable to EM jamming? Just change the fixtures, attachments, or more to accommodate it. In discussing the UAS opportunity, this flexibility is often overlooked, but with 3D printing, people can develop drones faster. Changing a drone quickly by updating attachments to keep up with the march of technology will be very significant indeed.

“We are focused on small UAS, up to 20 feet, because size really is key in small UAS, and we can adjust mechanics precisely with AM without needing large tooling for production. This also means we can move things around in the aircraft and quickly iterate changes. With new methods and materials, we can make parts as good as or better than other methods. We can make new designs and produce at scale and cost while quickly integrating a new subsystem and demonstrating this to the customer. We can integrate new technologies at a rapid pace, almost in real-time.”

One of the most interesting aspects of this is the ability to do this close to the warfighter. But where exactly can we produce these drones? RapidFlight is currently integrating a production space in a container, but where to place them?

“It all depends, of course. Not exactly next to the trenches, we need a little bit of infrastructure, but it’s very easy to do in a Conex. The advantages of doing this under contested logistics are significant, and so many challenges come with shipping, distances, and logistical hurdles. We want to set up a production line for our customers, close to where they need us to be.”

Mike then tells us that while their E2 UAS is attritable, it could also be a two-way drone adaptable to many missions. It can be launched from a runway or launchers. The M2 is longer range and heavier. Different propulsion systems can be easily integrated into the airframe, allowing customization to their customer’s propulsion needs or fuel. In effect, “we are no longer just making the aircraft, we’re wrapping the aircraft around the mission.”

An important part of this process is the ability to get feedback from commanders and warfighters and incorporate it into new design changes. RapidFlight hopes to listen to warfighters, quickly adapt to their needs, and use their feedback in the creation of new products as well. This could mean small changes, changes to the payload, or even changes to the airframe. While the firm currently uses material extrusion, it is also exploring other 3D printing technologies.

I really like what RapidFlight is doing here. One key thing I learned from them is the advantage of flexible payload integration. I had previously thought more about changing the airframe, but given the rapid pace of technology, this quick and flexible payload integration could be a significant advantage. I believe that 3D printing and interactively creating new vehicles close to the point of need is the future of war, and I think RapidFlight is one of the firms making this happen.

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