Marines, Fire Up Your Printers!

Why haul spare parts into battle if you can just print them?

Nothing beats homemade. (Bernardo Salazar)

The U.S. military is embracing the idea of designing and building its own drones with 3D printers, instead of buying them off the shelf. The Army made headlines recently with tests of 3D printed drones, and the Navy has worked on the idea for a few years. The Marine Corps, which recently outlined its plan for all infantry squads to use small quadcopters for reconnaissance, is moving forward with plans for printed drones: One Marine officer recently told me that his battalion has a number of 3D printers on order, to experiment with and better learn their capabilities. The Corps has no current plans to deploy 3D printed drones in combat—yet—but will soon be using them in training exercises, according to the officer. And today’s 3D printing technology  already allows parts to be built in the field.

Custom-building an entire drone in the field—or even in a university lab—is a trickier problem, however. Drones require a variety of parts: propellers, motors built of wound copper wire and magnets, carbon fiber or fiberglass frames, antennas, and visualization systems with lenses and imaging sensors. Troops in the field might even need to produce their own ground control stations to control the aircraft. Current 3D printers can produce multi-rotor frames and fixed wing fuselages, wings, stabilizers, and control surfaces. Printing electronics is still a few years off, although the 3D printing industry sees it on the horizon.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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