There are all sorts of applications for 3D printing in the military, from a submarine hull and a trauma simulator to missile components and surveillance drones. Recently, Rhet McNeal, a 26-year-old Corporal in the US Marine Corps (USMC), noticed some issues with the hand-launched fixed-wing drones, the RQ-11 Raven and RQ-12 Wasp III, that the Marines use. The small drones are usually equipped with light payloads, such as cameras for field surveillance, but they’re so expensive that most Marines aren’t authorized to fly them; it doesn’t help that the drones can be tough to launch. So McNeal decided to do something about it, and turned to 3D printing to get his ideas – and the drones – off the ground.
Innovation Challenge Lead Jennifer Walsh at the USMC headquarters in Washington D.C. said, “The Marines have always been pushing innovation and have always had that forward-thinking mentality.”
“We want Marines to have the potential to use 3D printing or additive manufacturing to quickly go through the design process and make things possible.”
The goal of the USMC’s Next Generation Logistics Innovation group, or NexLog, is for the people who actually use the products in the military to push through innovation. NexLog was established in 2015, in order to advocate for the use of emerging technologies like 3D printing on the front lines of the military, and to give Marines the ability to come up with solutions to the problems that affect their environment. The group focuses on three thrust areas: Additive Manufacturing (AM), Unmanned Logistics Systems (ULS), and Smart Logistics.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen all branches of the US military, including the Marines, realize the many possibilities and innovations, both big and small, that 3D printing opens up, including the benefits of having 3D printers in combat zones; there have even been some 3D printing labs and hubs set up to help servicemen and women fully realize what the technology is capable of.
While Raven and Wasp drones are not terribly expensive as far as military standards, each respective unit still costs $35,000 and $49,000, and they require ground control systems that can cost upwards of $100,000. If one crashes, the USMC is looking at some costly repairs. McNeal, who has a Bachelors Degree in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech, thought he would be able to make a 3D printed drone that had the same surveillance capabilities for far less.
“We have these drones that do a hundred things that make them cost between $35,000 and $50,000, but the soldiers normally only use the two or three big capabilities. I wanted to strip it down to what we actually use so that our drone does not cost so much we are afraid to use it – if you break it, not a big deal,” McNeal explained.
Last year, McNeal and a team of five collaborators submitted “Adaptable and Affordable 3D Drones,” a proposal for a transportable, quick-assemble, inexpensive drone that was modeled after the existing Wasp – but with 3D printable parts. From a pool of over 300 submissions to NexLog’s Logistics Innovation Challenge, McNeal’s proposal was one of 17 winning ideas chosen. McNeal was given access to the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) at Penn State, which is a US Navy Affiliated Research Center, and got to work designing the drone, nicknamed Scout, and experimenting with 3D printing parts for the wings.
McNeal, effectively the team leader of the Scout project, said, “Every Marine has an assault pack that’s standard issue. I made my drone so it can snap apart into four parts and can fit into the pack. For somebody that has never messed with it before, it takes about two and a half minutes to assemble.”
An entire Wasp drone system costs roughly $250,000 once all is said and done. But using 3D printer resin, off-the-shelf electronics, and the iPhone app Q Ground Control, the Scout drone system (1 control system, 2 drones) can be built for just $613 – less than 0.5% of the Wasp system.
Things really took off last year when McNeal heard from Captain Christopher Wood, the Marines’ co-lead for additive manufacturing, that there was an opening for a four-month residency at Autodesk’s Pier 9 technology center in San Francisco. The 27,000 square foot workshop has 3D printers, CNC machines, a metal shop and a wood shop, and access to top software and hardware experts.
This January, McNeal started as a Pier 9 Resident, in hopes of pushing his Scout drone prototype forward with the help of Inventor, Fusion 360, and Netfabb.
“Pier 9 is this great community to test ideas, for example, ‘this is the problem I’m having…it’s not really so much a problem, but something I think could be made better.’ There is no way on earth the Scout would be as good as it is today if not for the great people and equipment I was able to work with on a daily basis at Pier 9,” McNeal said.
After completing his Pier 9 residency, and a functioning drone, McNeal has returned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He’s turned the build specifications and design files for the Scout system over to The MITRE Corporation, which supplies and tests many of the drones used by the USMC. The company will work to get McNeal’s system through the certification process, and hopefully to wider-scale manufacturing after that.
Projects like McNeal’s Scout drone system are a shining example to other Marines that their ideas will be heard and supported as they come to fruition.
“We want Marines to know this is your project,” said Walsh, to sum up the overall purpose of the NexLog competition. “We’ll connect you with the right engineers and technology to bring your idea to fruition.”
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