Army Research Lab working with Marines on 3-D printed drones

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. Army researchers are working with a group of Marines to develop small 3-D printed unmanned aerial systems (UASs) for use on the battlefield and on different missions.

In a YouTube documentary (see link below) released by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) on the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment (AEWE), the 3-D printed drone team details how researchers first envisioned on-demand printing with a suite of tools that would allow for soldiers to enter mission parameters and then get a 3-D printed aviation asset within 24 hours.

Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, is maturing as a viable means to produce mission-essential parts or equipment at the point of need, said ARL engineer Larry "LJ" R. Holmes, Jr. "We have interacted with Marines who have never touched an unmanned system before to Marines who are experts in unmanned aerial flight," Holmes said. "Across the board they all seemed to be very interested in the topic of being able to manufacture a tool that they can use that was mission specific and has a turn around." Holmes said that while the Marines expected turnaround on the 3-D printed parts to be days or weeks, the ARL team showed them that the turnaround time can be anywhere from minutes to hours.

The capability to print something from a spool of plastic that is able to fly off on a mission is something that captures the imagination, Holmes said. "I think a lot of folks are interested in additive manufacturing because we've seen on sci-fi shows ... just walking up to a user interface and saying, 'cheeseburger,' and there's my cheeseburger," he said. "I think that as additive manufacturing continues to grow and the technologies continue to evolve that we're going to get to a point eventually where we will be making things in a similar fashion where you will walk up to your user interface and say, 'unmanned aerial system,' and it will make it for you."

Elias Rigas, a division chief in ARL's Vehicle Technology Directorate, said of the AEWE project: "Things like additive manufacturing with materials, artificial intelligence and machine learning, technologies, these will enable us to bring together the capabilities that will allow the future soldiers and marines the decisive edge that they need in the battlefield."

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