US Air Force Awards RapidFlight $10M for 3D Printed Drones

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RapidFlight is a US-based startup that is quickly ramping up to make 3D printed drones at scale. We previously interviewed Director of Growth, Mike Uffelman, and boy, are these guys growing. After initial funding, they have now secured a $10 million USAF AFWERX contract. AFWERX is the innovation arm of the US Air Force and is run by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). AFWERX is a rapid and relatively agile arm of the US government, meant to harness and channel the innovations, inventions, and power of small companies toward solving the Air Force’s greatest challenges. This particular award is part of the Autonomy Prime program, which aims to bring and entrench autonomous technologies within the Air Force.

This particular contract is for the realization of the SPX, an unmanned aerial system (UAS) with a 150 nm range and a 5.4 kg payload. The drone is designed to have an easily configurable set of customizable components. Using 3D printing, the craft can quickly be adapted for new payloads. For example, a new type of sensor or missile could be integrated into the SPX more quickly than into another vehicle. The company hopes that its 3D printing approach will allow it to test and implement this technology faster than others. The outcome is a test at the Autonomy Prime Proving Ground and a demo for the Air Force.

“Our collaboration with the AFWERX Autonomy Prime Program positions RapidFlight as a leading innovator for delivering mission-customized, autonomous aircraft with up to 80% reduced design-to-manufacture time and platform costs as compared to existing solutions. This contract will enable the DAF to explore RapidFlight’s digital engineering process and its modern development approach to produce customizable aircraft with novel technologies critical for national security,” Mike Uffelman said.

“Autonomy Prime is excited about this innovative approach to unmanned autonomous aviation. It represents a promising opportunity to continue our mission of creating a rapid, affordable, and iterative autonomy testing and transition capability for the DAF,” said Lt Col Josh Fehd, AFWERX Autonomy Prime branch chief.

The Department of the Air Force (DAF) is investing heavily in 3D printing and is currently the largest investor in this technology. This is partly because recent wars have highlighted the importance of drones. From small platoon-level commercial drones to cost-effective but theater-spanning Bayraktar drones or modified light aircraft striking targets thousands of kilometers away, we are living in a time of drone wars. Warfare may fundamentally change very quickly. With everything out in the open, able to be seen and attacked cost-effectively, we are somewhat transported back to the First World War, where movement was nearly impossible and battlefields were in stasis. Then, trenches and machine guns froze wars in aspic; now, it is cheap cameras and DJI drones. Tanks are being decimated by $200 3D printed drones made in Ukraine by hobbyists. There is a real democratization of war through 3D printing, which we’ve previously documented in our Drone Swarms series.

Amid riotous innovation shaped by the battlefield, the US looks vulnerable. The US has great globe-spanning high-tech drones but appears ill-prepared for the chaotic innovation and kinetic free-for-all occurring in Ukraine. The US “Cadillacs” seem likely to be usurped by “electric scooters.” With a static, inefficient, and slow procurement process, the US may not have the time to out-innovate lower-cost alternatives. So, this contract is pivotal for RapidFlight and the Air Force. The world’s greatest military power seems to have constructed a Maginot line of formidable defenses: huge, unconquerable, and useless. The entire US arsenal seems likely to be quickly outmoded and surpassed in any real war. Yes, its weapons are the best, but it has too few of them. The others’ weapons are not as good, but they are inexpensive and omnipresent. A thousand cheap drones couldn’t defeat an aircraft carrier, but 20,000 just might. Simply put, if I design better drones customized for the battle space, improving them every day, I’ll eventually beat you, no matter how disadvantaged a position I start from.

RapidFlight’s promise is to create a UAS production system that can make the US agile and responsive to the rapid changes of contemporary warfare. So, it’s a big day for RapidFlight but an even bigger day for the Air Force.

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