No plan survives first contact with the enemy, goes the old military adage, so military equipment is designed to work under a variety of circumstances. What if, though, the Army could know exactly what kind of drone scout they’d need tomorrow, and could print it in 24 hours near the battlefield, ready to use the next day? Earlier this month the Army selected on-demand 3D printed drones as one of the technologies they’ll test in the 2017 Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments.
Technically, the program is called “On-Demand Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” It aims to combine the speed and flexibility of printing with the versatility of off-the-shelf parts. Here’s how the Army describes it:
"Small components are procured and assembled into a vehicle," [project team lead Eric] Spero said. "The vehicle is relatively easy to repair or replace, or can be disposed of. The level of maintenance is driven by how long you want to a particular vehicle solution." "When we mention that the on-demand version is flexible, potentially more available, and at a much lower cost -- that's when people get excited," Spero said. Spero said the on-demand approach also avoids chasing obsolescence of electronic components. When newer components become available on the market, or when mission needs change, each can be incorporated into the software with little delay. "A small inventory of inexpensive, off-the-shelf electronics enables a wide range of UAS capability," he said.
Like all branches of the American military, the Army already has drones on hand, ranging from the predator-sized Gray Eagle to the hand-tossed Raven and Puma drones. Between all these drone systems, the Army surpassed over 2 million drone flight hours in 2014. The Army has thousands of Ravens on hand: they carry high-quality cameras and are simple to launch, but they also cost up to $300,000 apiece when made to military specifications. A Raven-like drone, built from off the shelf parts, can cost as little as just a few hundred dollars.
If the Army wants to look at some fixed defensive positions a few hills over, and they aren’t too concerned with getting the drone back, printing up a simple body and slapping in some electronics could be a very cost-effective way to do that. And 3D printing isn’t limited to just remaking what’s already been done. Say there’s a warehouse the Army wants to look inside, but windows are wedged shut. A custom drone with a ram-like head could force open a window and then scout around inside. One-use ram drones aren’t something one plans on bringing to every battle. Printing it as-needed could, as it were, really open up a lot of opportunities for troops on the ground.