US Army wants to deploy on-demand, 3D-printed drones

The US Army is teaming up with the Marines to develop 3D-printed drones that could be made from scratch right near the battlefield.

US military forces could one day send 3D printers to the battlefront along with its soldiers. The US Army on Monday shared a look at a custom-printed, on-demand aerial drone program that would let the Army and Marines create flying machines built for specific missions.

Imagine needing to check a potential hot spot for threats. You want something small, quiet and able to carry a camera. So you open an app on a tablet, choose your drone specifications and send it off to be made by a 3D printer at your base camp. You get your finished drone within hours. 

An Army statement describes this sort of drone as a "3D-printed aviation asset." Army researchers have already tested prototype 3D-printed drones and are looking to further develop and expand the program. The experimental drones are modular and can be assembled quickly.

The concept combines aviation technology, 3D printing and software development. The Army envisions an almost Amazon-like catalog interface where you choose your drone from a selection of options. Eventually, soldiers would be able to customize individual parts of the drone to fit the mission.

It could take some time before this vision becomes reality in the field. There are obstacles to overcome. "As a researcher, I'd like to improve the speed of the print or the strength of the part itself," engineer Jolie Frketic says in a short documentary released by the US Army Research Laboratory.

The Army is looking at a variety of ways to integrate additive manufacturing into its operations. It previously experimented with a 3D-printed grenade launcher earlier in 2017.