The Marines are learning how to 3D print small quadcopters. (1)
“… Marines built an initial batch of 25 Nibbler UAVs – quadcopters with a dwell time of about 20 to 25 minutes, which can carry cameras or other intelligence payloads and cost about $2,000 apiece to print …”
Wow, you say! What’s not to like about that? Unlimited 3D quadcopter printing. That’s fantastic!
Uh, back the quadcopter up, for a moment, and let’s look at this a bit closer and make sure it’s as fantastic as we and the Marines seem to think.
Let’s start with capabilities. A quadcopter with a 20 min endurance is very small, very light, and can carry only a very small payload. This is not a battlefield roaming, omniscient, eye in the sky, see everything sensor.
“The Marines built, The Nibbler, a four- rotor UAV with a 20-minute flight time capable of looking over hills and around buildings …”
This is a peek-around-the-corner or look-over-the-next-hill type of capability. That’s nice, I guess, but haven’t soldiers been doing that kind of recon for a thousand years? Plus, a quadcopter stands a better chance of being spotted and alerting the enemy to our presence than a properly trained soldier who understands stealthy recon. So, that’s a disadvantage to the quadcopter. Still, I’m sure there are circumstances where it might be convenient to have a flying, pinhole camera. That’s right, a pinhole camera – that’s about all a quadcopter this size could carry. This size craft is not going to be carrying radar, FLIR, or anything else that might actually be useful.
Now, let’s look at logistics. People tend to think that a 3D printer creates objects out of thin air. It doesn’t. It uses a print medium that has to be supplied in bulk. If you want to print a 10 lb part, you need at least 10 lbs of print medium and that’s only if you have 100% conversion of the medium. And you don’t. Printers have a degree of waste. The conversion is 50% to 90% depending on the printer and part. So, to make that 10 lb part you actually need 11-15 lbs of print medium.
Thus, the printer doesn’t actually save any weight or volume in terms of logistics. If you think you’ll need 100 quadcopters printed, you’ll need to transport 150% more than their weight of print medium with you into the field. You’ve gained nothing, logistically, and have likely increased your transportation weights and volumes.
|How Many People Does It Take To Operate A Quadcopter?|
Let’s look at personnel requirements. A 3D printer is not quite like your home PC printer. It requires some fairly sophisticated programming and operating techniques. In other words, you’re going to have to pull riflemen off the line to sit somewhere doing 3D printing.
“A total of 48 personnel were taught to run the 3D printers …”
We’ve pulled 48 riflemen off the line in order to create a very marginal recon capability. Is that really the best use of Marines?
Let’s look at cost.
“…cost about $2,000 apiece to print …”
You can buy this kind of quadcopter from almost any retail store in
for around $125, ready to fly, with controllers and
small cameras. What are we saving? America
Let’s look at time. It takes a very long time to print an object. People tend to think a printer can produce a complete, fully functional quadcopter that flies out of the printer and straight to the battlefield. That’s not even remotely correct. The printer produces individual components – each component can take minutes to hours to produce - that have to be tediously and laboriously assembled, wired, and tested. More people, more time. Why not just have a pre-purchased, complete unit boxed and ready to go?
I have no idea but I would guess that to print all the components for a small quadcopter would require many, many hours. In contrast, you can open a boxed quadcopter and have it in the air in 15 minutes. If you have a sudden, urgent need for a quadcopter in the field, printing is not the way to go. Sure, you could have a supply of them printed up and sitting in a pile, ready to go but then why not have pre-purchased ones in boxes ready to go? What have you gained?
Let’s look at firepower. This kind of effort continues the Marine’s trend away from firepower and towards becoming a light infantry with only very limited use. Quadcopters aren’t going to win a peer war with
, firepower and numbers are. China
This smacks of technology for the sake of technology with no real warfighting benefit. It costs more than buying the same item, it saves nothing logistically, takes far more time, and offers only a marginal capability, if that. Personally, I’d rather have a scout-sniper do my recon.
The military is so caught up in the technology craze that no one bothers to ask how any of this will result in greater lethality on the battlefield. Instead, the military seems like it’s desperately searching for some use for 3D printing just to be able to say they can do it.
(1)USNI News website, “Marines’ 3D-Printed ‘Nibbler’ Drone Creating Lessons Learned on Logistics, Counter-UAS”, Megan Eckstein,