3D printing Drone Swarms 15: Phoenix Ghost and the future of custom weapons – 3DPrint.com

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As we discuss in our ongoing series on swarms of 3D printing drones, additive manufacturing (AM) will play an increasing role in the production of all kinds of semi-sentient robots. This has been demonstrated by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are now made in part with 3D printing for lightweight, custom designs. For this reason, we expect AM to be used for other drone-like robots as well, often for military purposes. We also do not advocate the use of 3D printing for the manufacture of weapons or military equipment, but we emphasize it as probably inevitable.

Recently, the United States announced that it would quickly allow Ukraine to use its Phoenix Ghost drones. According to a senior defense official, “The Phoenix Ghost…was rapidly developed by the Air Force, in response, specifically to Ukrainian requirements. It’s a great example of adapting to their real-time needs.

Other reports have specified that the Phoenix Ghost was created for a similar mission and adapted for Ukraine. Another story quotes an official as saying the design of the craft was “based on talking with the Ukrainians about what they needed. It’s very much related to the fight they’re in, in the Donbass, and what that region, from a terrain perspective, portends about the use of force.

Regardless of how it was developed and deployed, the rapid process of moving this unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from R&D labs to the front lines indicates agility in engineering and deployment.

IAI’s Harop roving ammunition. Image courtesy of the IAI.

Many know that the US military’s supply system is broken. The military spends way too much money waiting way too long to get the kit they want. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced the military to react quickly. Many are trying to balance Ukraine’s needs with maintaining reserves. Others want to provide equipment, but not the latest and greatest.

The situation in Ukraine is also unique, with the defenders of the nation facing a specific enemy behaving in a specific way with specific methods, training and equipment. Indeed, each conflict is unique due to situation-specific doctrines, enemy actions, weather, climate, level of combatant training, infrastructure, and many other influencing factors.

Could 3D printing be an ideal solution to improve hardware to better meet today’s requirements?

Silent Thunder, a wandering ammo from Athlon Avia. Image courtesy of Athlon Avia.

In our 3D Printing Drone Swarms series, we looked at 3D printing missiles, trailing ammo, drone democratization, war winners and more. Overall, the findings of this series so far are that 3D printing is playing an increased role in the battlefield, especially in unmanned aerial, underwater, and ground vehicles. Why is 3D printing so important for the future of drones?

  1. Drones are new gear and 3D printing has been used demonstrably and repeatedly to make prototype components which were then used on the final vehicle. This saves time to market and costs.
  2. The manufacturing of new vehicles can be accelerated with 3D printing because parts go from concept to final part faster.
  3. More iterations and the flexibility of 3D printing can lead to agile engineering, in which craftsmanship is improved during the development process or according to requirements and results. This reduces product development risk and speeds time to market.
  4. The same basic vehicle can be quickly adapted to new payloads, new tenders or new versions thanks to the rapid addition of 3D printed components.
  5. 3D printing is cheaper and faster when developing new products in general. This becomes especially important when flying prototypes are used to win projects which are then used to build the final vehicle. It’s relatively quick and inexpensive with 3D printing.
  6. With 3D printing, we can design low mass components compared to conventional components. It makes gear more maneuverable, can increase payloads, can increase range, and can make gear tougher.
  7. We can also integrate functionality with 3D printing, with a case also transforming into a tether.
  8. On top of that, we can also reduce the number of parts in general, either by integrating features or simply combining an assembly into a single component. This reduces required capital and costs, speeds up iteration and can improve vehicle form factor.
  9. Drones themselves are typically low volume and in this scenario, with relatively few parts, 3D printing is extremely valuable and efficient.

Overall, we can see that 3D printing is a natural technology for drone development. This reduces product design costs and reduces development time. But, there is one very important consideration that is often overlooked. By making a production process more agile and speeding up time to market, it is possible to create customized versions of a vehicle more quickly.

So far, the military has tried to standardize everything from shoes to planes. It must be prepared for a wide range of theaters, missions and scenarios. Standardization therefore makes sense. But, if we know and understand the battlefield, it should be possible to customize a vehicle to local conditions. Deployments can be accelerated and gear can be made more resilient by deploying 3D printing for bespoke gear. Indeed, we can examine the role, landscape, climate and more, and customize a drone for the mission and the theater.

Another ammo that’s been lying around is AeroVironment’s Switchblade. Image courtesy of AeroVironment.

In the case of the Phoenix Ghost, we are dealing with a wandering ammo intended to target artillery or armour. It could have a flight time of six hours and take off vertically. Imagine this was made for a Middle Eastern climate and wouldn’t work well in Ukraine. With 3D printing, it could be quickly adapted to local conditions.

Imagine that new cameras were needed to make a state-of-the-art UAV. New housing could quickly be designed for them. Imagine the craft needing a new payload to beat more heavily armored vehicles? New mounting or payload options could easily be enabled with 3D printing. Imagine that Ukrainian users find out that the drone needs to be more maneuverable. Quick light weighting could be done with 3D printing. Imagine wet weather bringing planes to a standstill. They could be upgraded with new components that seal the device against the elements. Or imagine the US has high-end Phoenix Ghosts that are good but contain very sensitive technology. The company could be asked to quickly remove hardware and replace it with a simpler variant to allow it to be sold.

I think we are witnessing a new era of warfare where, unfortunately, 3D printing will come to the fore. Technology in turn will make warfare more precise by adapting drones to their current battle and terrain.

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