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Navy considers 3D-printing future fleets of drones

Published time: May 29, 2013 17:40
Edited time: May 31, 2013 12:30
X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flying over the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77).(AFP Photo / Alan Radecki)

X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flying over the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77).(AFP Photo / Alan Radecki)

Three-dimensional (3D) printers are quickly proving to be capable of creating just about anything out of little more than thin air, and that could be the military’s key to keeping an endless arsenal of drones at its disposal.

Just as 3D-printed organs, pizza and even firearms are being made with the post-modern machinery, the United States military is eyeing the up-and-coming technology as to further their upper-hand on the battlefield. Recently, a decorated member of the US Navy made an argument for adding unmanned aerial vehicles and even munitions to the list of items that can be made with little more than a well-equipped printer and a few clicks of a mouse.

Hobbyists and engineering students have already toyed with the idea of using 3D printers to make unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, but the Navy could piggyback on that idea to ensure that UAVs made to withstand military operations are soon a reality. In an article published this month in the Armed Forces Journal, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Llenza discussed what could be next in the works for the Navy.

For the Navy, the technology promises to shift inventory from the physical world to the digital one,” Llenza wrote. “Instead of actual parts, a ship might carry 3D printers and bags of various powdered ingredients, and simply download the design files needed to print items as necessary.”

What kind of items? According to Llenza, just about anything.

Today’s printers are generally limited to printing parts made of just one material, and variance is a big issue,” he said. “But the development of multiple-material devices is well underway, and the technology is racing ahead.”

Llenza went on to site recent stories where college students at the University of Virginia printed a UAV that was controlled by a handheld smart phone. Scientists are still working out the kinks with that technology, but it’s expected to only be a short while before drones done entirely using digital blueprints, a printer and a moldable polymer or plastic soar through the sky.

The eventual goal is a drone that flies right out of the printer with electronics and motive power already in place,” Llenza wrote. 

Soon enough, he said, the Navy could likely harness that into something fit for the world’s most powerful military.

An organic ability to print replaceable drones from ships, forward operating bases or during disaster relief operations to serve as targets or observation platforms could be a huge enabler for sailors and Marines,” he wrote. 

A Texas college student recently made international headlines after his blueprints for a gun made almost exclusively with 3D-printed parts were distributed for free on the Web, prompting condemnation from the likes of the US State Department and congressional lawmakers. The “Liberator” handgun has since rekindled a discussion on the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, but an argument might not even arise of it if the Pentagon starts printing out weaponry of its own. And according to Llenza, that’s exactly what’s about to happen.

Llenza said he started talking to an Army colleague at the Atlantic Council who formerly worked for the company that produces the nitrocellulose and propellants for much of the US arsenal and realized what exactly is in store for the future of weapons manufacturing.

We started talking about printing out ammunition, and he explained that printing casings would be relatively easy, but that the idea would be a nonstarter unless you could print the energetic component as well,” Llenza wrote.

After chatting with researchers at a Virginia Tech laboratory that has more than just dabbled in drones as of late, Llenza said those experts agreed that 3D-printed ammunition is indeed an effort worth pursuing. And given that replacement body parts and even dinner is being done using the printers, it likely will be a reality sometime soon.

The US Navy recently launched their first-ever drone from an aircraft carrier off Virginia’s Atlantic coast. Previously, all of the Pentagon’s UAV missions were carried out by the Air Force.

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