ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- The Army is taking drone technology to new heights by bringing 3D printed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to soldiers in the field.
Engineers at the Army Research Lab (ARL) in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, developed a drone catalog that would give soldiers access to on-demand, mission-specific drones.
John Gerdes, a mechanical engineer who worked on the project, explained that a soldier would simply pull up the catalog using a phone or tablet and enter how far they need to fly or how long they need to stay in the air.
"The tool will pull from a variety of different parts that are available and design for them, at that moment, exactly the vehicle that they need," Gerdes said.
Gerdes added that all of the 3D printed parts are weather resistant and built to withstand the conditions soldiers could encounter while they're fighting.
Beyond just entering the parameters of their mission, Eric Spero, the team lead within the vehicle technology directorate at ARL, explained that soldiers could also build a mission using a bird's eye view map of the area of interest.
In that case, Spero said soldiers would be able to select certain points they want the drone to hover over.
"As they build their mission, the tool will keep track of how much time is involved, which then goes into the design algorithms and figures out what the most appropriate drone is in terms of battery size and then the motors and the propellers that are involved," Spero said.
Printing all the parts for a single drone could take anywhere from 8-10 hours, but Spero said they envision both the Marines and the Army having forward-deployed warehouses where the 3D printers would be available. Those warehouses could potentially have staff members dedicated to running and maintaining the printers.
"We envision that this could be used as far forward deployed as possible," he said. "So that means, it could be used at a forward operating base or it could be used a little bit further back."
LJ Holmes, the lead for the additive manufacturing hybrid operations team, said researchers worked with several different groups of Marines and U.S. soldiers to get feedback on how the drones are assembled.
"Things that we thought were easy to understand were not the things that the warfighter thought were easy to understand," Holmes said.
Based on their original designs, both Marines and soldiers suggested that researchers reduce the number of parts and eliminate the need for tools to assemble the drones.
Now, the new design makes it possible for a warfighter who's never assembled a drone to do so in about 30 minutes.
"Most of the components are designed to snap into place so they're easily put together," Holmes said.
Each drone comes with an instruction manual and ARL is still working on an assembly video.
These 3D printed drones cost significantly less than the ones the military currently uses and they wouldn't have to be retrieved if they crashed or failed, Gerdes explained.
"That was part of the reason we designed these vehicles the way that we did because a soldier certainly should not put themselves in harms way to recover a vehicle that's supposed to be helping them," he said.
Beyond the financial benefits of these 3D printed drones, Holmes added that having a system that can constantly evolve means war fighters will always have the latest technology at their fingertips.
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