The University of Sheffield sent out a press release at the end of last week announcing that they had succeeded in developing UAVs that were able to be 3D printed at a fraction of the cost of conventional designs. Many of you may well think about stopping reading after this point, ‘it’s interesting, but not really CBRN…’ Well, kinda yes, kinda no. One of the major problems with using UAVs in CBRN is the inherent cost of the platform, once it is contaminated it would need to be disposed of, something that budget signatories tend to take very seriously.

The press release goes into detail on the process:

“Engineers at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield have successfully printed a 1.5m-wide prototype unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for a research project looking at 3D printing of complex designs. The engineers said the polymer craft could form the basis of cheap and potentially disposable UAVs that could be built and deployed in remote situations potentially within as little as 24 hours.

Earlier versions required significant amounts of support material around component parts to prevent the airframe structures from deforming during the build process. Using support material adds a direct material cost, and significantly increases build time, in some cases by an order of magnitude. This is a result of the machine having to change between build and support structure heads after each printed layer.

New 3D printing techniques, such as the fused deposition modelling (FDM) used to make the UAV at Sheffield, could soon be used in the creation of products without the need for complex and expensive tooling and the time required in traditional manufacturing. The UAV has already completed a test flight as a glider.  Researchers are developing an electric ducted fan propulsion system that will be incorporated into the airframe’s central spine.  They plan to develop the craft for guidance by GPS or camera technology, controlled by an operator wearing first person-view goggles.

The Sheffield UAV comprises nine parts that can be snapped together.  It weighs less than 2kg and is made from thermoplastic.  The engineers are currently evaluating the potential of nylon as a printing material that would make the UAV 60 per cent stronger with no increase in weight.”

Admittedly it is at a low TRL level, and that it is not about to be fielded, but effectively it will allow tactical units to have sheets of these UAVs that they can snap out and construct in minutes, attach easily decontaminable elements to (such as motor, optics and detector) and get it fired into the plume to provide early sensor readings and ‘eyes on.’ When the platform returns to the warm zone it can be scrapped into small pieces, bagged and the other elements set aside for decon.

The team saw the 3D printing facility at ECBC last year, where they are now able to get layers of different material blended together to get different structures and densities, and the future for UAVs is undoubtedly in this area. For example, you could decide to do away with the detector entirely, instead you would 3D print the device with a layer of enzymatic colour change material. That way you would be able to see, with some image intensification, whether the device is contaminated and if so leave it in the hotzone, minimising the spread of contamination. To take this ‘flight of fancy’ further, we could treat different surfaces with different colour change material, the wings could be OP and the fuselage blister agent. With fewer expensive components you have less to worry about, and less training requirement.

A long way off, but 3D printing of UAVs may well offer new tactical opportunities for immediate recce. 

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