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Having the right tool for the right job is about half the recipe for success. Unfortunately, having the right tool at the right time is not always feasible or even possible. Supply chain delays notwithstanding, sometime the right tool doesn’t yet exist, and sometimes it’s in a warehouse on the other side of the planet.

Researchers at the US Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) think they have a solution: 3D printing. For now they’re focusing on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a proven technology with a reliable battle track record.

Their plan is to give soldiers kits of electronic parts and to equip bases with 3D printers so troops could print their own drones, tailor-made for specific tasks, in a matter of hours.

Printing drones within a single day is already a reality, but enabling soldiers to do so in the field would be a real breakthrough.

“Going from nothing to a flying vehicle within 24 hours is pretty amazing,” said Eric Spero, an engineer at the US Army Research Laboratory.

Printing drones would just be the first step, however. Officials are hopeful that the technique would allow frontline troops to determine what equipment they carry according to their requirements; make it cheaper and easier to repair vehicles; and, most importantly, minimise the impact of adversaries cutting supply lines.

“It’s transformative,” said Navy Captain Frank Futcher, who is working to make 3D printing widely available to sailors. “We need to stay ahead of the curve and figure out how we’re going to implement this as quickly as possible.”