Lance Cpl. Nicholas Hettinga, 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, prepares to pilot a 3-D printed unmanned aircraft system, or drone, during a Sept. 27, 2017, test flight at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. (Photo: U.S. Army photo by David McNally, ARL Public Affairs)

Army researchers are working with the Marines to develop 3-D printed drones as materials science, aviation technology and software development merge to deliver new capabilities.

"Several years ago when we were collaborating with our academic partner, Georgia Tech, we had this project where we were focusing on design engineering of small unmanned aircraft systems," said Eric Spero, a team lead within the laboratory's Vehicle Technology Directorate.

Spero and his team brought their idea to fruition at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command's annual event at Fort Benning, Georgia in 2016. The Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment (AEWE) puts new technologies in the hands of soldiers.

Researchers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory first envisioned on-demand printing with a suite of tools that would allow for soldiers to enter mission parameters and then get a 3-D printed aviation asset within 24 hours. They then reached out to the U.S. Marine Corps and started working with them to provide a software catalog that marines could use to select and print an unmanned aircraft system for a specific mission.

Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, is maturing as a viable means to produce mission-essential parts or equipment at the point of need, said ARL engineer Larry "LJ" R. Holmes Jr. "We have interacted with marines who have never touched an unmanned system before to marines who are experts in unmanned aerial flight," Holmes said. "Across the board they all seemed to be very interested in the topic of being able to manufacture a tool that they can use that was mission specific and has a turnaround."

Holmes said the marines expected the turnaround to be days or weeks, and the ARL team showed them that the turnaround time can be anywhere from minutes to hours. Researchers said they plan to streamline their processes based on feedback received from the marines in order to enable unprecedented situational awareness.

"Things like additive manufacturing with materials, artificial intelligence and machine learning, unmanned systems technologies, these will enable us to bring together the capabilities that will allow the future soldiers and sarines the decisive edge that they need in the battlefield," said Elias Rigas, a division chief in ARL's Vehicle Technology Directorate.

The capability to print something from a spool of plastic that flies off on a military mission is something that captures the imagination, Holmes said.