There are many military applications for 3D printing, from manufacturing grenade launchers and body armor to building drones and customizing military meals. Last year, the US Army released a report detailing its continued commitment to 3D printing, and this week had the chance to demonstrate some of the technologies currently being used during its Maneuver Support, Sustainment, Protection, Integration Experiment.
Some of the funds of the US’ $700 billion annual budget for military defense have been channeled toward testing this technology at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to ensure that service members faced with potentially using new devices in the field have some experience with and input on the technology before it is deemed ready for deployment.
According to Mike McCarthy, deputy to the commanding general for the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence at Ft. Leonard Wood, this strategy has helped the US military become more efficient while also modernizing operations.
McCarthy explained, “Using this process takes 40 percent less time from concept to fielding new technology than traditional methods. It also has a significant cost savings. You don’t have to go back and fix it after fielding.”
Demonstrations of the new devices and technologies Army personnel have been experimenting with, including 3D printing and scanning and sensor-equipped drones, were put on this week for the media including the Springfield News-Leader to gain a look into the latest efforts.
A three-year Army program called “Automated Construction of Expeditionary Structures,” or ACES, has been exploring the use of 3D printing to build semi-permanent structures from concrete made with locally available materials. In August, ACES was used to 3D print an Army barracks.
Megan Kreiger, a US Army Corps of Engineers official based in Illinois, helped demonstrate ACES, which is being jointly developed by the Army, NASA, and Caterpillar and has been in testing at Ft. Leonard Wood for three weeks – the first time it’s ever been outdoors. ACES, which is about the size of a big garden shed, prints layers of concrete and aggregate, and recently used local materials for the first time, instead of concrete from the lab.
Another first for ACES – this is the first time it’s 3D printed a structure on an uneven gravel surface; big news, as most 3D printers need flat surfaces to work properly.
Kreiger said that the system has been working well under multiple weather conditions, and only took 21.5 hours to 3D print a barracks hut that could house 20 soldiers. Even more impressive is the fact that ACES built a smaller, simple bunker structure in only two hours.
However, Kreiger said that before ACES heads to the battlefield, a “hardened” version needs to be developed that’s sturdy enough for transport and can hold up under even more weather conditions.
The Army and Corps also want to develop an ACES technology that lets soldiers 3D print structures with dirt bricks, instead of having to import cement powder into deployment areas.
Another technology demonstrated at Ft. Leonard Wood was FARO Focus Laser Scanners, which are currently used by several law enforcement agencies to document crime scenes in 3D. This 3D scanning technology, able to make 800,000 3D measurements per second, could also be used on the battlefield for extremely detailed mapping and route-making.
3D laser scanning can record crime scene data in just 40 minutes, and “scans everything,” even bullet trajectories and bloodstain patterns, according to FARO Technologies official Dennis Sweet. Additionally, there is less room for human error with 3D scanning, and scans can yield more information at a later date if officials need to go back and check something.
However, while Staff Sgt. Christopher Schultz said that FARO Focus lasers are not used in a warfighting capacity yet, they could eventually be mounted onto robots or vehicles for mapping, as the 3D scanners can take 3D images on a truck going 55 mph, or even in total blackness.
Army personnel also demonstrated two types of drones equipped with technology called C-SIRP, or Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Sensor Integration on Robotic Platforms. Sensors that have been shrunk to fit in very small spaces are mounted beneath quadcopter drones, which are then sent ahead of troops to gather intelligence and identify chemically-contaminated sites without risking human lives. The InstantEye drone was manufactured by Physical Sciences Inc., and Deep Purple was drone designed and made by the government. Fiona Narayanan, who worked on Deep Purple’s development, said that its goal was to use other technologies, like encrypted video feeds and LIDAR detection systems, to help mission commanders make life-saving decisions more quickly.
“This negates us going to any given bad place. It keeps us out of danger,” said Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Boe, one of the service members testing C-SIRP.
During the demonstrations, Army personnel unpacked the C-SIRP drones while a minivan was driven to the far side of a nearby valley and release what Narayanan described as a “fog oil plume.” Deep Purple was flown by operators toward the plume and followed the smoke, sending back real-time reports to two TVs.
James Ashley, a product manager who worked on the C-SIRP development, said, “They’re pretty accurate. Anyone in the armed services can operate it. They’re pretty straightforward.”
Check out the Springfield News-Leader video and for on-the-ground photos to learn more.
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