The U.S. forces have been using drones during its missions for a while. They use these UAVs mainly to provide support to its troops in combat zones. The challenges, however, include the delivery of the drones taking weeks and that they had to be stocked and stored throughout the troops' expeditions.
Recently, the engineers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and Georgia Tech started working on a project to design their own UAVs. It occurred to them that what they were actually creating a software-enabled tool that could design on-demand. Both teams agreed to make a prototype and present it to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Benning, Georgia.
According to Eric Spero, a project leader at the US Army Research Lab, once the prototype was approved at Benning, they decided to put it in the hands the of soldiers to see what they thought of it. After the audience tried the prototype, the researchers said that they got enough feedback to understand what the Army needed on the field and all the changes they had to make to perfect the tool.
However, the ARL team met a few challenges. According to John Gerdes, one of the engineers working on the project, not everyone in the Army approved the idea of producing its very own drones. They say it seemed easier to outsource the job.
Once the software designed the UAV parts, a 3-D printer will make them. However, the parts could not be in steel like other UAVs the Army was using. This raises concerns about how viable these drones are in the field since steel is a much more rigid material. In addition, since the 3D printer can only make parts at a time, another question raised was the production time.
Despite the concerns, the project took a turn for the better when General Robert Neller from the Marine Corps heard about the project. He contacted the research team and explained his vision to them. He wants to deploy every marine with their own quadcopter. That vision seemed to please Dr. Philip Perconti, the director of the ARL, who commented that helping all the U.S. troops perform better is one of the research lab's role and that the lab is always happy to work with the Marines.
Following the General' request, the ARL team put together a proposal. However, Neller suggested that if the troops could have a catalog of UAVs, it would be easier to create better parts and even to customize the parts for specific missions. The making of the catalog was the job of engineer Nathan Beals.
Afterwards, officers from the Marine Corps and the Army got together at a Build-a-thon to evaluate how quickly the soldiers could assemble the parts and form a worthy drone. With the feedback they received, researchers of the ARL can confidently say that their project will not only provide troops with "mission essential items at the point of need" but also save the lives of soldiers who will be able to secure areas without risking their lives. They will achieve all this with only a cost between $200 and $1,000, much cheaper than the lives of warfighters or the steel UAVs they were used to.
Overall, additive manufacturing or 3-D printing will transform the way the U.S. military operates, for the better. Some might even say that one day, we will be able to ask a machine vocally for a UAV and get it printed in a few minutes.