Military wants to 3-D print robots, drones, spare parts

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Source:   —  April 07, 2016, at 3:36 PM

You’d love to have a drone to hold 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.

Military wants to 3-D print robots, drones, spare parts

Declare you’re a soldier sent on a mission into hostile territory. You’d love to have a drone to hold 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 MD wish to help, and they think 3-D 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 construct 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 twenty-four hours is beautiful amazing,” Spero said.

The 3-D-printed drone is just one example of how the emerging manufacturing technology is letting commanders rethink how they equip troops. Executive hope that printing gear will give front-line fighters more declare in the equipment they carry, create it easier and distant cheaper to repair aging vehicles, and minimize the impact when enemies slice supply lines.

And by enabling the military to create what it needs in-house, the technology also has the potential to reshape the relationship between defense contractors and the government.

Navy Capt. Frank Futcher, who's working to create 3-D printing widely available to sailors, foresees systems deployed on ships around the world, churning out parts on demand.

“It’s transformative,” he said. “We necessity to stay ahead of the curve and figure out how we’re going to implement this as quickly as possible.”

The technology can slice 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 3-D printing and other technologies, such as cheap cellphones and more powerful explosives, could slice 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 3-D 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 U. S. aircraft sitting on runways. The printers wouldn't only construct the drones, but create it much easier to manufacture a key component used in improvised explosive devices.

“It shifts the power,” he said. “How do you defend every airfield in the world?”

The skill to print objects in three dimensions – more properly called additive manufacturing – has been around since the one thousand nine hundred eighty. 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 construct 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 Middle at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

In a space once used to learn soldiers how to support vehicles, Ruprecht oversees a collection of large and much more sophisticated 3-D printers.

In one room, there’s a machine that works love 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. Latest month, its printing head moved back and forth as a gas-mask emerged beneath.

A machine nearby used lasers to turn powdered nylon into powerful 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 Middle have had access to the printers for decades, but department chief Rick Moore said demand for the fast turnaround jobs for which the machines are suited has boomed in recent years.

“After nine/eleven, things changed and we'd our hands in a lot of different projects,” he said.

The Edgewood team used 3-D printing to assistance construct a system to demolish a stockpile of chemical weapons in Syria, to create a prototype kit for detecting bomb-making materials that's presently 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 molds for metal filters to go on torpedo tubes. Before 3-D printing, they'd been cannibalizing parts from decommissioned submarines.

Currently, the utilize of 3-D printing is Ltd 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 Ltd 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 Univ are testing whether they carry out as well as the components currently in use.

“We’ve got a tiny bit of figuring out to do,” said Peter Zeender, a researcher at Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering.

Defense industry analysts said 3-D printing is still a ways off from upending how the military shops. But contractors are thinking through the implications. Military executive and business leaders map to meet this spring to figure out how the military would purchase data to print urgently needed parts.

Tag Vitale, a consultant at Deloitte, which is to be involved in the session, described the underlying concept as “let’s replace inventory with information.”

The technology is growing more sophisticated. One approach that's Ruprecht and Moore excited would be much faster and essentially do far with the layers; another uses robotic arms to create much bigger parts. Engineers are looking at how 3-D printing can be used to create finished products.

Scott Thompson, an aerospace and defense expert at the consulting firm PwC, said the military will likely be able to design and construct tiny systems on its own, but won’t be able to slice contractors out completely.

“When it comes to major weapons systems, they still necessity the major contractors’ engineering talent,” he said.

Jason Phillips, a Navy engineer, recently designed and built a six-legged robot for a 3-D printathon, going from an initial design to finished prototype in just over a month. More than ninety % of the foot-long bot was printed, he said, including emotional 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 3-D printed drones at an exercise following 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 Univ of Virginia, is also working with the Army on printing drone parts. In two thousand-fourteenth, 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.

The Raven system costs $173.000, according to the Air Force. Sheffler says his drone cost only $2.500 and can be keep together in about thirty-six hours. During most of that time, Sheffler said, he can be “sleeping, drinking coffee and watching TV” as the printer does it job.

The following step is to give the drone the skill to get off vertically; to be fully autonomous, so it can fly itself around the battlefield even if its connection to the GPS system is slice off; and to carry out precise landings – on the back of a Humvee, for example.

Sheffler says 3-D printing remains a long way from the manufacturing techniques presently used to create planes. And in a video released by the university, his prototype crashed on launch several times. But he can always create another one without spending too much money; they're cheap sufficient to be considered almost disposable.

“You lose one of ours, you don’t care,” Sheffler said.

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