Monday, January 27, 2014

How the Future of War (and Flying) Could Be Swarms of 3D-Printed Drones


The U.S. military has a problem. It takes too long to acquire new fighting machines.

In 1983, top-brass decided that they needed a new fighter jet to maintain a tactical edge in the Cold War threat environment. The resulting aircraft, the F-22 Raptor, which was specifically designed for use in a central European front, was the most technologically advanced fighter ever created. Those Soviets won't stand a chance, the brass must have thought. Except that the first Raptor wasn’t delivered until 2005, 22 years and $39 billion after the program was conceived, and 14 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

In war, nobody—least of all the U.S.—wants to be the kid who still uses a Discman when everyone else has iPods. 22 years is too long to develop new platforms and, as the military faces budget cuts, it’s too costly. “All the technologies conceived at the fall of the Berlin Wall are now being used in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Ben FitzGerald, a Senior Fellow at the D.C. defense think-tank Center for a New American Security.

FitzGerald, an affable Australian with a magnificent copper-colored beard—and a rising star in future war strategy circles—thinks he has a solution: it involves 3-D printing, robotic assembly lines, and drones. A lot of them.

The idea, which FitzGerald outlines in “Process Over Platforms A Paradigm Shift in Acquisition Through Advanced Manufacturing,” breaks down like this: instead of building large, expensive manned aircraft in tiny numbers (the military purchased just 187 F-22s, for $174.5 million a pop) the military could—in theory—build thousands of customized drones out of 3-D printed parts, using robotic assembly lines that run 24 hours a day. Then, writes FitzGerald and his co-author, Dr. Aaron Martin, Director of Strategic Planning at Northrop Grumman (which lost the contract for the F-22 to Lockheed in 1991), the military could deploy the 3-D printed drones in complex, infinitely configurable and no doubt terrifying swarms controlled by “digital pilots.”

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