Officially established in 1992, with roots dating back to the beginning of the 1900s, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is the main science and technology development firm for our country’s land forces. The main center is located within the Adelphi Laboratory Center at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland with other labs spread throughout the country. The research conducted at ARL covers all realms of technology advancement that will aid in protecting and bettering U.S. Army missions.
It comes as no surprise that ARL has a large department dedicated to the development of drone technology. All branches of the U.S. military have long been using drones. These drones are used for defense, offense, surveillance, rescue, aid, research, and more. Nearly every U.S. military division uses drones in some capacity. Most of the drones used by the military are expensive complex devices. The military has budgeted billions of dollars towards drone development and deployment. Researchers from ARL approached the ground forces with a proposal to build a system that would decrease the cost of drones and put these valuable tools into more soldier’s hands.
In an ideal situation, every squadron would have access to a cache of drones to use for any mission. But being able to transport or receive unlimited access to drones while out in the field is not always an option, especially since these drones often need to be expendable. Led by Eric Spero at ARL a team came up with the idea of creating on demand drones through additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing. An industrial 3D printer can cost around $5,000 and the materials needed can run around $25 per kilogram. With a 3D printer at their disposal, a ground squad could have an unlimited supply of drones.
3D printed modular drones could be put together quickly and easily, almost like assembling Legos. The materials would be lightweight, durable, and replaceable when needed. They could also be customized to meet specific mission objectives. But before ARL could start making 3D printed prototypes they needed to find out from soldiers the exact type of drones that would benefit them. ARL met with a team of Marines, some of who were experienced drone operators and some who had never used a drone, to learn what they needed from drones in a range of field situations. Nathan Beals, an engineer at ARL, then took all of this information and compiled a database of drone options for soldiers to pick and choose from, much like an online shopping catalog.
Once the drone catalog was completed it was time to print up the parts needed to assemble the drones and put those pieces in the hands of soldiers. The ARL team went to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for this stage of testing. The researchers set up a build-a-thon to see how long it would take the Marines to build the drones, what problems arose, and what suggestions the Marines had to improve the process for an airworthy drone. John Gerdes, another engineer from ARL, pointed out that this was a unique opportunity for the Marines. “Typically they’re just given things and told to use them without actually being in the loop on the development of those items,” John said. “So, by kind of inserting the Marines into our development cycle, we were able to really get some more detailed feedback on what their needs were. And now we can take that feedback and really target it, and make sure our vehicles are exactly matched to what they want.”
The next stage of testing was to have the Marines build and fly the drones. Once again ARL returned to Camp Lejeune, this time with a 3D printer in tow. The Marines had the chance to go through the drone catalog to pick out a mission specific drone. They then set the 3D printer to build the drone parts. Once all the parts were printed the Marines assembled and flew the drones. All the steps done at the test site could be replicated in the field. Now instead of waiting weeks for tools to arrive, the Marines would have access to them within hours.
The technology for additive manufacturing is available, but there are still some issues that need to be worked out. Engineers from ARL are working to develop stronger additive material to build drones that are more stable and sturdier. They are also looking to speed the printing process up even more. But with a 3D printer, the goal of seeing the right tools in the hands of any and all soldiers at the right time is achievable. “I think it’s going to help a lot with keeping things on a cheaper scale, as well as helping provide that watchdog for the lower infantry guys going in,” said Lance Cpl. Don Gull 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, one of the participants in the trial. “As they’re getting into an area that things may seem heavy, instead of really putting themselves at a higher risk, you can put in a drone that can be anywhere from, I don’t know, $200 to $1,000. That’s much cheaper than a Marine’s life.”