Army Building On-Demand 3-D Printed Unmanned Aircraft

Army Engineers created this made-to-order, 3-D printed Unmanned aircraft in less than 24 hours. Although the lightweight shell and propeller arms are printed using additive manufacturing, the motors and propellers will be assembled using off-the-shelf equipment. Photo: Army.Army Engineers created this made-to-order, 3-D printed Unmanned aircraft in less than 24 hours. Although the lightweight shell and propeller arms are printed using additive manufacturing, the motors and propellers will be assembled using off-the-shelf equipment. Photo: Army.

Engineers from the Army Research Laboratory recently flight tested 3-D-printed unmanned aircraft they created for soldiers using a new on-demand system.

The demonstration, which was part of the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments, or AEWE, at Fort Benning, Georgia, showcased new technology designed to provide soldiers in the field with rapid unmanned aircraft support, according to a Jan. 5 Army press release.

“We’ve created a process for converting soldier mission needs into a 3-D printed on-demand small unmanned aircraft system, or ODSUAS, as we’ve been calling it,” explained Eric Spero, team leader and project manager.

The system allows soldiers requiring unmanned aerial vehicle support to input their requirements into mission planning software and then receive a 3-D-printed aerial vehicle within 24 hours.

“We thought they’re not going to think that’s fast enough,” Spero added. “[but] the timeline … fits right in line with the way they plan and execute their missions.”

The engineers said they felt the combination of 3-D printing and unmanned aerial vehicles made for a natural technology solution.

“Everybody knows all the great things that can be done with 3-D printers,” said John Gerdes, an engineer on the project. “So we figured let’s assemble these two new technologies and provide a solution to soldiers that need something right now.”

In the days leading up to the demonstration, the team spent many hours flight testing and verifying the designs to ensure everything would work the way they expected.

“It was good that we didn’t have any mistakes on game day,” observed fellow engineer Nathan Beals. “The day before we did some test flights and worked out some kinks. I think we had the quad up to 55 miles per hour.”

Based on the feedback engineers received from Army leaders, Spero said, his team plans to work on improving noise reduction, standoff distance, and agility, as well as increasing the 3-D-printed drone’s payload capacity.

“I’m very optimistic that most of those are achievable,” Spero said. “I think the hardest one … is the heavy payload.”

At the event, the engineers discovered that the soldiers were fascinated by the 3-D printing technology, Spero said.
“Before we even started the briefing, we set up the 3-D printer in the conference room and started a print job,” Spero said.

The researchers printed a Picatinny rail used to mount accessories on a small arms weapon, such as an M4 carbine. In about two and a half hours, they had a rail that fit the soldiers’ weapons perfectly.

They asked the group of Soldiers what other kinds of 3-D printed items they could use. In a matter of hours, the team presented a variety of functional printed parts that impressed the soldiers.

“This isn’t just about [unmanned aerial systems],” Spero said. “It’s about forward-deployed, 3-D printing to help the soldier.”

The Army engineers say they will continue to collaborate with partners at the Georgia Tech’s Aerospace Systems Design Lab as they refine technologies for future soldiers.

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Matthew Cox
Matthew Cox is a reporter at Military.com. He can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.