US Navy is testing 3D-printed drones

CIO | Jul 29, 2015

Custom designs can be sent to ships and printed onboard.

This drone was 3D printed aboard a Navy ship

The drone was designed and developed by engineers on land then emailed to the USS Essex where sailors downloaded it, 3D printed the parts, put it together with electronics and flew it.

Alan Jaeger
Faculty research associate, Naval Postgraduate School
Basically, you just plug and play. Be able to plug those in and then go out and perform a mission.

The flight control system, radio, GPS, camera and other electronics were in a kit that was already on the ship. The blue and white parts were 3D printed.

The biggest advantage is being able to customize the drone for any type of mission, even if the mission only happens once. It’s still possible to build a drone and send it out with little effort.

A ship could sail with a range of drone parts for potential missions, but that takes up space and could never cover every possible scenario. And getting new parts to a ship after it sails is also a problem. The 3D printing gets around that.

This kind of concept, you know, flight controller and major parts, doesn’t matter if four bladed, or six or eight , whether its 18 inches across or 45 ft across as long as electronics stay same, sailors can create a platform based on what their need would be.

This particular drone is designed for search and seizure missions when sailors are fighting piracy and drug smuggling out at sea. The drone, which has a small camera, gives the sailors a look at what’s happening aboard a boat that’s suspected of piracy or smuggling drugs. It can also show them what’s happening on the side of the boat they can’t see.

The Naval Postgraduate School is continuing its research and flight demonstrations to test the drone’s capabilities and limitations.

How do you actually initialize it onboard a ship that’s moving, what does the flight controller want to do, do we need some kind of platform for it, what types of interference do we get from the ship from different radar, communications systems.

Understanding what those strengths and limitations will be key to determining when it makes sense to print drones on demand.