Air Platforms

US Army demonstrates 3-D printed unmanned aircraft

09 January 2017
The US Army Research Laboratory is working through efforts to 3-D print systems on-demand for field use. e: US Army/Angie DePuydt

Army Research Laboratory engineers flight tested a quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was largely assembled with 3-D printed parts, as the service is seeking ways to quickly create on-demand systems to meet soldier's needs.

The demonstration was held in December as part of the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments at Fort Benning in Georgia and focused on creating a 3-D printed on-demand small unmanned aircraft system (ODSUAS), the army said in a 5 January report.

The concept is for soldiers in theatre, when they need a UAV, to "input requirements into mission planning software and then receive a 3-D-printed aerial vehicle within 24 hours", the army said.

In this demonstration, the 3-D printed ODSUAS was a quadcopter capable of flying up to 48 kt. Its shell and propeller arms were printed with additive manufacturing, but the motors and propellers were assembled with off-the-shelf equipment, the army said.

Prior to printing the aerial vehicle components, engineers demonstrated printing a Picatinny rail weapon accessory mount in about 2.5 hours.

Additive manufacturing essentially sprays fine layers of powder - containing metals, plastics, and other materials - and then dries and fuses them with a laser (there is also a magnetic application and other approaches). The process can be far more efficient than cutting or grinding down materials but lacks the regulatory structures.

The army, along with its sister services, is eyeing additive manufacturing to ease supply chain management at depots and on the battlefield (although a variety of policy work must be figured out first in order to standardise business rules and understand possible impacts on suppliers).

Additive manufacturing can be used by the army in several ways, General Gustave Perna, head of Army Materiel Command, told reporters late last year. At the strategic level he would like to have additive manufacturing capabilities at depots and in army prepositioned stocks to reduce supply chain requirements and get products moving through the chain in a more timely manner.

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