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A new technology will make drone manufacture much cheaper and more efficient. That’s the vision behind a new drone program, from NexLog, the US Marine Corps next-generation logistics team.
The Marine corps already has the RQ-11 Raven, however, an individual Raven drone costs over $30,000, and a whole Raven system including three Ravens and a ground control system can cost up to $250,000, according to popsci.com. When it breaks – it’s expensive to fix.
Moreover, the Raven system takes up a lot of space when transported by a truck.
For the system developer, corporal Rhet McNeal, who participated in the Corps competition in this field, the idea was a drone that did most of what the Raven did, but cost a fraction of the cost, and smaller form-factor that fit into flexible packs for transport. To find that idea, he turned to Thingiverse, an online 3D printing commons. There, he found the Nomad design, a simple fixed-wing drone plan published under a Creative Commons license, is designed to carry a GoPro camera, a motor, and it’s built from modular parts. That modular design means it’s easy to reprint damaged components, and simple to collapse and reassemble when needed.
McNeal was selected as one of the about 20 winners of the Marines logistics challenge. He created a new, 3D-printed drone prototype, nicknamed “Scout.”
The entire system is $615,” says McNeal. “Scout uses an open-source flight controller and open-source software for waypoint navigation. Its’ only payload right now is a camera,
though as designed it’s possible to switch it out. And compared to a drone like the Raven, it’s a more limited device: the range at present is less than two miles, and while it can fly at speeds of up to 50 mph, it can only do so for between 12 and 20 minutes. It lacks a laser to mark targets, and at present, the camera it uses can’t see in infrared. Still, it meets the most important requirement: it costs less than $1,000, and can still scout the next hill for the Marines that need it.
Based on the modular “Nomad” design, the “Scout” is made of small printed parts designed to be easy to assemble in minutes.
With its short range and basic controls, the risks in the Scout might be minimal enough to advance the design from a 3D printed prototype to a simple manufactured machine, but one that can still fly with rapidly printed spare parts.
There are 40 different Marine Corps units including maintenance, intelligence, infantry units, special operations, and even a tank battalion employing 3D printers on a fairly routine basis.