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The Military Transportation Build

US Navy Tests 3D Printing Custom Drones On Its Ships 66

itwbennett writes: Researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School are testing the use of 3D printers on ships to produce custom drones outfitted for specialized missions. The idea, said Alan Jaeger, a faculty research associate at the school, is that ships could set sail with kits of the core electronics parts, since they are common to most drones, but have the bodies designed according to specific requirements for each mission. A prototype drone was designed by engineers on shore based on requirements of the sailors at sea, and the 3D design file was emailed to the USS Essex over a satellite link. Flight tests revealed some of the potential problems, most of which were associated with operating the drone rather than the printing itself, Jaeger said. 'Even with a small amount of wind, something this small will get buffeted around,' he said. They also had to figure out the logistics of launching a drone from a ship, getting it back, how it integrated with other flight operations, and interference from other radio sources like radar.
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US Navy Tests 3D Printing Custom Drones On Its Ships

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  • Flight tests revealed some of the potential problems, most of which were associated with operating the drone rather than the printing itself, Jaeger said. 'Even with a small amount of wind, something this small will get buffeted around,' he said. They also had to figure out the logistics of launching a drone from a ship, getting it back

    Shouldn't they be fixing this first?

    • Just needs more thrust & control surfaces.

      • Just needs more thrust & control surfaces.

        Yep, just make it bigger so it has more power and... why is our drone now too large to launch from the ship? The history of miniaturization :)

        • That was kind of my joke.

          They should just change the names of airplanes to drones, sheet metal bending to 3D printing, and be done with it.

        • Just needs more thrust & control surfaces.

          Yep, just make it bigger so it has more power and... why is our drone now too large to launch from the ship? The history of miniaturization :)

          Well, I guess you'll have to 3D print a bigger ship, then!

          • Just needs more thrust & control surfaces.

            Yep, just make it bigger so it has more power and... why is our drone now too large to launch from the ship? The history of miniaturization :)

            Well, I guess you'll have to 3D print a bigger ship, then!

            And then bigger people so everything remains to scale?

    • Re:Uncontrollable? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Thursday July 30, 2015 @08:55AM (#50213855) Journal
      No. This is innovation because they are using 3d printing (ohhh!); any problems of a practical or fundamental nature will be fixed at a later date. Maybe.

      I wonder: how many different drones for different missions would you really need? And can't they achieve the same by building a tested, stable, flyable drone platform, then adding attachments (3d printed or from stock) according to each mission's needs?
      • Re:Uncontrollable? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ComputerGeek01 ( 1182793 ) on Thursday July 30, 2015 @09:25AM (#50214053)

        There is some practicality to be realised here. What if instead of carrying around ten prefab copies of every component that might get damaged during operation you just carried around a block of material and printed out what you needed for repair on an as needed basis? This would also reduce the amount of loss due to components being damaged, warped or what ever the hell else in transit. As a civilian I have not the slightest idea what cost savings this might provide, but as a taxpayer the the thought of the US Navy of all organizations saving money brings a smile to my face. I don't even care if every penny of that savings gets dumped back into the F-35, it's still a step in the right direction.

        • Careful. How are the no-bid contractors going to charge big $$$ for mil-spec parts if you can just 3D print them?

          Sounds like a commie plot to me.

          • There is lots of money to be made in building (and supporting) mil-spec printers. And mil-spec plastic. And mil-spec designs.

            • mil-spec plastic

              "Yes, we know it costs 20 times as much, but it's in officially approved camouflage colours."

        • Because when you have the preformed parts, you just go over and snap them together. When you have to print the parts, you warm up the printer, download the files, print the parts, fiddle with the printer, print the parts again and snap them together.

          Perhaps as an R&D setup, this makes sense - if you are trying to develop different frames / gizmos / attachments to the UAVs to fit various mission requirements. In a shooting war, not so much.

          "Sailor, we want an attack drone."
          "But sir, if I just adjust th

        • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

          Carriers have machine and wood shops where they fabricate lots of things, including needed parts for the carrier.

    • by cdrudge ( 68377 )

      What's to fix?

      Too windy? A 3d printed drone won't be applicable for that mission, much the same way a Zodiac-based landing party wouldn't be suitable during a hurricane.

      Need to launch? Toss in air. [youtube.com] It's launched.

      Need to land? Land. If it falls in the water, oh well. Your disposable drone is disposed of. It's not like these are $4m Predators being made. The military spends more on consumables to flush a toilet than what these cost to make.

      • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )

        What's to fix?

        Too windy? A 3d printed drone won't be applicable for that mission, much the same way a Zodiac-based landing party wouldn't be suitable during a hurricane.

        Need to launch? Toss in air. [youtube.com] It's launched.

        Go old school. Take what is essentially an old K-gun depth charge launcher and add a container for the drone that breaks apart at a certain height. This would allow the drone to get far enough away from the wind for controlled flight and doesn't waste power on the drone by having to take off in all the wind.

    • On a ship you have more than cross winds, you have wind coming up the sides and the acceleration across the deck, etc. I don't think a battery powered drone, even with enough control surfaces and mass, would have much flight time.
  • That seems a little silly to me. Should I custom make the drone with four propellers, or four? Should I have a camera, or a camera? Should I have the most appropriate battery, or the most appropriate one?
    • by boa ( 96754 )

      That seems a little silly to me. Should I custom make the drone with four propellers, or four? Should I have a camera, or a camera? Should I have the most appropriate battery, or the most appropriate one?

      The cool thing isn't the number of propellers, but that they can change the model and produce a new drone on board. The alternative is to either get it delivered somehow, or return to a port to pick up the new drone.

      3D printing will save them lots of time if they choose to change the design. Also, spare parts can be produced on board the ship.

      • Re:Seems silly. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Captain Hook ( 923766 ) on Thursday July 30, 2015 @09:13AM (#50213967)

        I seems to me the real saving here is that powdered plastic is a lot denser than hollow aerodynamic plastic shapes and so won't take up anywhere near as much storage space.

        Rather than trying to store 1000 small drones on board, you just have a big tank with enough powdered plastic to make 1000 small drones and the various non-printable bits (electronics, batteries and motors), which are smaller and easier to store anyway

        Then you just keep 10-20 drones ready and print more off as you use up the stock of ready made drones.

        • The cooler thing would be if you have enough high speed printing capacity that you could manufacture and assemble a 1000 drone swarm in a very short period of time and overwhelm an adversaries defenses without requiring a ship big enough to carry a 1000 completed drones. And then another one, and another one. You would need a tanker full of plastic and a freighter full of batteries, electronics and propellers.

          âoeKill decisionâ baby.

      • by tomhath ( 637240 )
        It's not clear what they mean by "custom" though. The motors, batteries, and electronics are stock items. I don't see what custom features they can add; the "prototype" looks like only the plastic arms were printed.
      • The alternative is to either get it delivered somehow, or return to a port to pick up the new drone.

        Can't the damn things, I dunno... delivery themselves?

        There's a manned solar airplane doing a trip around the world right now, why can't "tiny' drones also use solar panels?

      • They should check out http://flitetest.com/ [flitetest.com]. These guys pop out new drones in minutes with no need for for a 3d printer.
  • This just in (Score:4, Interesting)

    by DNS-and-BIND ( 461968 ) on Thursday July 30, 2015 @09:02AM (#50213909) Homepage
    Newsflash: places with machine shops need to fabricate objects, so they use the latest technology available. Surprise to uneducated people: US Navy ships have machine shops on-board, because they often need to fabricate objects while at sea. The surprising twist: when you're at sea, you can't just order from Amazon, you have to make it right then and there. Crazy, eh?
    • The machine shop part I understand, but do they store raw materials or do they also have a foundry onboard? :p

    • The surprising twist: when you're at sea, you can't just order from Amazon, you have to make it right then and there.

      But what about Amazon's drone delivery service?

      • by JazzLad ( 935151 )
        Yo, dawg, I herd you liked drones so I delivered you a drone with a drone.

        Did I do that right?
    • US Navy ships have machine shops on-board, because they often need to fabricate objects while at sea.

      Other than carriers and large support vessels however, the machine shops are generally pretty basic and operated by relatively unskilled/inexperienced people. (They're trained in the operation of the tools, but it's not their full time job.)

      3D printing is a game changer even for the Navy in that it requires essentially no skill or significant training.

      • Look, here are some pictures of an older carrier's machine shop [midwaysailor.com]. No, you won't find this on a small cruiser - but you also don't find the poor little cruiser out in the middle of the ocean by itself. So if gizmo A breaks on the little boat, the big boat's machine shop can likely fix it.

        Having some 3D printers isn't going to materially change things. It will change things a little - those pictures are from a post WW 2 carrier, I imagine newer boats have full on CNC machines. And I imagine that, sooner or

        • No, you won't find this on a small cruiser - but you also don't find the poor little cruiser out in the middle of the ocean by itself.

          Actually, yes, you do. The Navy does a lot more than just sail around in full carrier centric battle groups.

          I imagine newer boats have full on CNC machines.

          They don't.

  • Do you want Skynet drones factories?

    Because that's how you get Skynet drones factories.

    Seriously, all the parts seem to be falling into place. Time for a reboot of the Terminator franchise? (one without humanoid robots walking around and delivering punchlines).

  • Print what you actually need on board ship... repair parts... These ships have big inventories of parts that they know will wear out, parts that could break, and of course... consumable munitions.

    These are the things you print aboard ship.

    Rather than giving a ship a huge inventory of repair parts, you give them a few printers and the raw materials to print whatever is needed.

    This can't work with everything... at least with our current level of technology. But the idea should be to give the Navy more space i

    • I discussed with some others before in that printing on a ship or forward deployed base is a waste of money, time, and space. I could see the various depots having printing shops, that makes sense. That'd certainly save on local inventory. Another factor is MILSPEC, they'd have to MILSPEC it all again for 3D printed parts. Not too hard but expensive an time consuming.
      • Well, that assumes the ships aren't given a proper 3d printer that can print the literal parts you need to milspec. We have printers that can pump out parts of the aerospace industry so they can print parts for your ship.

        BUT you need that level of printer. And then you need to do a cost/weight evaluation to make sure you're actually making a good trade.

        Only on the largest ships am I guessing this might make sense.

        But think of it... a major issue for the ships is having all the repair parts for all the plane

  • Not to be tedious but those are just r/c quadcopters. Many people print them on hobby-class 3D printers.

    Printing a customized Predator would be a worthy goal, calling this effort "research" is just pathetic.

  • We're going to be the Protoss!
  • A faculty research associate wanted to play with 3D printers and drones on the federal dime.

    • And get an all expense paid cruise!

      What's not to like? Besides the food, the entertainment, the rather spartan accommodations, the saluting ....

  • This is along the lines of my idea for modular space exploration probes...I put a brief abstract here on my site [wp.mhunt.click]. The basic idea is a space-based 3-d printer that also brings along the unprintable probe parts and electronics, and can print out the body of the probes per mission criteria. Also, the electronic packages are in a modular system so we can send out "refuels" of unprintable parts on regular basis so the system can keep on exploring with minimal human interaction for many years.

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