US military wants to 3-D print robots, drones, spare parts, and what not.
SAY you’re a soldier sent on a mission into hostile territory. You’d like to have a drone to keep an eye out for ambushes. Maybe there’s one on hand, but it’s not quite right for the job. Or maybe there’s nothing available at all.
Researchers at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, US, want to help, and they think 3D printing is the answer.
By giving soldiers kits of electronic parts, and equipping bases with the printers, they envision a future in which troops in the field could build their own drones in a matter of hours.
It’s already possible to print a drone in a day. Eric Spero, an engineer at the Army Research Laboratory, said the approach would enable units in the field to adapt on the go.
“Going from nothing to a flying vehicle within 24 hours is pretty amazing,” Spero said.
The 3D-printed drone is just one example of how the emerging manufacturing technology is letting commanders rethink how they equip troops. Officials hope that printing gear will give frontline fighters more say in the equipment they carry, make it easier and far cheaper to repair ageing vehicles, and minimise the impact when enemies cut supply lines.
And by enabling the military to make what it needs in-house, the technology also has the potential to reshape the relationship between defence contractors and the Government.
Navy Capt Frank Futcher, who is working to make 3D printing widely available to sailors, foresees systems deployed on ships around the world, churning out parts on demand.
“It’s transformative,” he said. “We need to stay ahead of the curve and figure out how we’re going to implement this as quickly as possible.”
The technology can cut both ways. While there is interest across the military in the potential for printing, its adoption by America’s enemies and rivals could present major challenges.
Retired Marine Col T.X. Hammes, a researcher at the National Defense University, said the combination of 3D printing and other technologies, such as cheap cellphones and more powerful explosives, could cut into the advantage offered by fighter jets or submarines that cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
“All of these things are coming together very, very quickly, and that changes power structures,” Hammes said.
In a recent paper, Hammes said a 3D printing plant could cheaply churn out tens of thousands of drones a day, which could be used as flying bombs guided by cellphones to strike US aircraft sitting on runways.
The printers would not only build the drones, but make it much easier to manufacture a key component used in improvised explosive devices.
“It shifts the power,” he said. “How do you protect every airfield in the world?”
The ability to print objects in three dimensions – more properly called additive manufacturing – has been around since the 1980s. But patents have expired in recent years, unleashing a wave of innovation.
Commercial printers, available for a few hundred dollars each, squirt hot plastic layer by layer to build up an object.
“Think of it as building a loaf of bread one slice at a time,” said Brad Ruprecht, a technician at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
In a space once used to teach soldiers how to maintain vehicles, Ruprecht oversees a collection of large and much more sophisticated 3D printers.
In one room, there’s a machine that works like an inkjet printer. It can print in several shapes and materials at once. It uses ultraviolet light to turn liquids solid, forming layers much thinner than a human hair.
Last month, its printing head moved back and forth as a gas-mask emerged beneath.
A machine nearby used lasers to turn powdered nylon into strong bars of solid plastic. Motors whined as mirrors fluttered backward and forward to guide the laser melting the plastic. A roller pushed a fresh layer of powder over the top, before the laser made another pass.
Elsewhere, a pair of machines shot laser beams into a pool of plastic goo, turning liquid into solid parts for a model vehicle.
The engineers at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center have had access to the printers for decades, but branch chief Rick Moore said demand for the quick turnaround jobs for which the machines are suited has boomed in recent years.
“After 9/11, things changed and we had our hands in a lot of different projects,” he said.
The Edgewood team used 3D printing to help build a system to destroy a stockpile of chemical weapons in Syria, to make a prototype kit for detecting bomb-making materials that is now being used in the field, and to design a gadget for reading medical test results.
The Navy has also been exploring the possibilities.
Futcher said mobile labs are deployed on three ships, getting sailors used to the idea of designing their own parts. In one case, the Navy printed moulds for metal filters to go on torpedo tubes. Before 3D printing, they had been cannibalising parts from decommissioned submarines.
Currently, the use of 3D printing is limited mostly to the design phase of a new product or making spare parts. The printers in some cases are still slower than traditional manufacturing methods, the size of parts is limited by the size of the printer and the layering means the finished product can have weaknesses.
The Air Force has shown that some parts of a rocket engine can be printed. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University are testing whether they perform as well as the components currently in use.
“We’ve got a little bit of figuring out to do,” said Peter Zeender, a researcher at Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering.
The technology is growing more sophisticated. One approach that has Ruprecht and Moore excited would be much faster and essentially do away with the layers; another uses robotic arms to make much bigger parts.
Engineers are looking at how 3D printing can be used to make finished products.
Scott Thompson, an aerospace and defence expert at the consulting firm PwC, said the military will likely be able to design and build small systems on its own, but won’t be able to cut contractors out completely.
“When it comes to major weapons systems, they still need the major contractors’ engineering talent,” he said.
Jason Phillips, a Navy engineer, recently designed and built a six-legged robot for a 3D printathon, going from an initial design to finished prototype in just over a month. More than 90% of the foot-long bot was printed, he said, including moving parts and gears.
The creature attracted interest at the event. Phillips wants to continue work on the project, which he figures could be useful to Navy SEALs operating in hazardous environments.
“The best benefit of additive manufacturing is being able to test stuff,” Phillips said. “You have a lot more freedom in what you’re able to build.”
Spero’s team at Aberdeen Proving Ground has been selected to demonstrate its 3D printed drones at an exercise next year. He said that showing their ideas to a wider audience should give team members a sense of how much interest there is among soldiers in having custom-built tools for specific missions.
“That’s very practical feedback we’re expecting,” he said.
David Sheffler, a researcher at the University of Virginia, is also working with the Army on printing drone parts.
In 2014, his team demonstrated that it could print a drone that could be launched by hand and replicate the abilities of the RQ-11 Raven used by the Army.
“We’re able to print these things at a ridiculously reduced cost,” Sheffler said.
Sheffler says 3D printing remains a long way from the manufacturing techniques now used to make planes. And in a video released by the university, his prototype crashed on launch several times.
But he can always make another one without spending too much money; they are cheap enough to be considered almost disposable.
“You lose one of ours, you don’t care,” Sheffler said. — The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service