US Navy is 3D Printing Custom Drones Onboard the USS Essex

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drone4Back in April of last year, we reported that the United States Navy had installed a 3D printer onboard the USS Essex. This was quite a significant move at the time, allowing sailors to print replacement parts and surgical tools when needed, at sea.

Boy, has a lot changed within a year. Today we get word that the US Navy is now 3D printing custom drones onboard their ships. They’ve apparently been testing the use of the onboard 3D printers to print out parts used to construct and assemble the drones.

The idea of printing drones, as needed, is one which could greatly improve intelligence while also decreasing the likelihood of Navy personnel being put into harm’s way, and has been on the minds of military planners around the world for some time now. In fact, just last week we reported on a story in which the British Royal Navy had launched 3D Printed SULSA drones from their ships.

ussexxexData files and models of the drones can be sent via satellite from land to the USS Essex, and eventually other ships within the Navy fleet, and then these files can be 3D printed in a matter of hours. Once printed, the parts can be assembled together with other electronic devices held in storage on these ships, to create virtually any type of drone that may be required.

The project, which is being carried out by researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School, looks to provide sailors with modern-day technology which could benefit them and the United States in more ways than one.

“The challenge aboard a ship is logistics,” explained Alan Jaeger, faculty research associate at the Naval Postgraduate School. “Once a ship leaves, getting additional parts to that ship becomes difficult.”

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The idea that ships can leave port with just a small supply of electronic components and parts, common to the majority of drones, means that completely custom bodies can be designed on land and then quickly sent to the 3D printers on these ships for quick fabrication. While the drones could be designed to perform many different tasks, the example drone that was 3D printed on the USS Essex, this past December, was designed to carry a transmitter and tiny camera that was capable of sending live video back to a head-mounted display worn by one of the sailors on the ship. Its mission was to fly over ships in order to help stop piracy and drug smuggling at sea.

“This kind of concept — the flight controller and the major parts — doesn’t matter if it is a four-bladed or six or eight(-bladed drone), or whether it is 18 inches across or four feet across, as long as the electronics stay the same, the sailors can essentially create a platform, based on what their need would be,” explained Jaeger.

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While the testing of this process onboard the USS Essex has been deemed very successful, there have been some problems that the researchers have run into.

“Even with a small amount of wind, something this small will get buffeted around,” explained Jaeger.

This isn’t exactly an issue with the 3D printing process, but rather an issue with tiny drones in general. Certainly continued research into the 3D printing of drones will result in better, more well equipped UAVs for the US Navy in the future. What do you think about this latest breakthrough? Discuss in the US Navy 3D Prints Custom Drones forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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