US Air Force Designs and 3D Prints Drones with AI in Under 48 Hours

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Task Force 99 is a small US Air Force (USAF) group based in Qatar, established “as an experimental unit” in October 2022. The group is part of USAF Central (USAFCENT), the Air Force Service component of US Central Command (CENTCOM), the DoD combatant command responsible for the Middle East and parts of Northern Africa and Central Asia.

In March 2024, Task Force 99 conducted a flight assessment of a 3D printed drone designed on software manufactured by Texas-based Titan Dynamics, which makes and sells aerospace battlefield simulation software and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs. Task Force 99 and Blue Horizons, an elite Air Force research organization, only began prototyping the drone the month prior.

The day after that initial flight assessment, the group was already testing another drone, one designed and printed in less than two days. The second drone carried a “mock first-aid care package over 30 miles,” demonstrating precisely the battlefield potential that its creators had been hoping for.

Colonel Jeffrey Digsby has since taken over Task Force 99, and recently told Defense One that the group “has a three-year ‘strategic workforce plan’” that the group expects will be integrated with DoD groups undertaking similar efforts in the US. Along those lines, Col. Digsby sees Task Force 99 as a linchpin within the Air Force’s ever-evolving “global innovation ecosystem”:

“We absolutely started to move into operationalizing this task force and we’ve really been pushing the limits with autonomous operations,” Digsby said, “and quite frankly, we’re on the cutting edge of [AI] integration for small UAS [uncrewed aerial] platforms. When you look at the technology that delivers those attritable, autonomous, and persistent [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaisance] capabilities, it’s the real world of operations that we’re doing here and some of the experiments that we’re conducting…are going to feed the Replicator program…”

Significantly, the Air Force’s Replicator initiative — first announced in August 2023 — aims to “deliver all-domain attritable autonomous (ADA2) systems…by August 2025.” While challenges with Replicator were reported at the end of last year, DoD recently confirmed that the first batch of deliveries related to the program were delivered in early May.

According to Task Force 99, the group can reduce the cost of small attritable drone production by up to 95 percent, compared to existing methods. This is especially important given the particular set of geopolitical issues driving tensions in Task Force 99’s general regional vicinity: Houthis have reportedly shot down six Reaper drones since last fall.

With each Reaper carrying a price tag of around $30 million, there’s clearly a priority for the US to find ways to achieve the same performance with smaller, cheaper hardware. In the context of Col. Digsby’s comment about integrating Task Force 99’s work with the USAF global innovation ecosystem, this represents precisely the sort of opportunity to leverage distributed 3D printing that I discussed in a January post about the Red Sea supply chain disruptions.

Images courtesy of USAF

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