As further proof that technology is indeed a double-edged sword, the U.S. Army is seeking to utilize the wonder of 3D printing to create a faster way to deploy pervasive surveillance.
3D-printed military drones have been explored for several years, with some successes reported. In May of 2013, Robo Raven was announced which incorporated 3D-printed components to produce independently flapping wings.
This development was followed shortly after by the Department of Defense funding a project at the University of Virginia for what would become the first fully 3D-printed military-grade drone, called The Razor. At the time of the announcement, it was expected that a full drone could be produced in approximately 30 hours at a price per unit of around $800.
Now, several years later, the military is seeking to combine advancements in 3D printing with a trend toward drone miniaturization into a project that will offer the capability for soldiers in the battlespace to produce their own quadcopter drones within 24 hours.
The Army Research Laboratory, as part of the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments, tested the prototype – a quadcopter they are calling ODSUAS – and reported a successful test with speeds up to 55 mph.
A Defense One report highlights the plans, which also could eventually incorporate advancements in artificial intelligence to produce autonomous swarms of these mini-drones. My emphasis added.
…A new project by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and Georgia Technical Institute just might help. It aims to give soldiers the ability to 3D-print swarms of mini-drones to specific specifications within 24 hours. Its creators call this approach “aggregate derivative approach to product design,” or ADAPT.
“A soldier with a mission need uses a computer terminal to rapidly design a suitable [drone],” says a poster by project chief engineer Zacarhy Fisher. “That design is then manufactured using automated processes such as laser cutting and 3D printing. The solution is sent back to the soldier and is deployed.”
Fisher says the drone itself could be fabricated in less than a day, with total turnaround time of less than three days….
The trick is to limit the number of potential build options around one of the four different tasks a soldier might need a small drone for. Previous research from Georgia Tech has identified those as perimeter surveillance and defense, reconnaissance for inside buildings, reconnaissance for inside caves, and jungle reconnaissance. Depending on the mission type, you know if you need a video camera, target designator, light detection and ranging and other pieces.
The authors describe the basic approach as inspired by Lego.
“The on-demand approach is succinctly explained via an analogy to Lego®,” they write. “Lego® bricks contain a number of modular parts that can be constructed into different models depending on what outcome is desired. Instructions are provided to help the user build different systems out of the same set of components.” At the beginning of December, the researchers performed a demonstration on several of the drones at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.
Future capabilities could include combining 3D printing, drones, and artificial intelligence, an of research being led by Kyrre Glette at the University of Oslo, who in 2014 demonstrated the first steps in program to allow robots to 3D-print themselves.
It is this final scenario which tends to worry even ardent supporters of technology and military development. A swarm of robots that can self-replicate and make decisions about surveillance and targeting without human input conjures up every warning we have ever received from the annals of science fiction. Now that science fiction is become a clearer reality with each passing day, we would be wise to no longer dismiss those cautionary tales.
In the following videos you can see 3D-printed drones in action, and a hint at the future of miniaturized drone swarms in the final video.