The Marines’ Newest Weapon: 3-D Printed Drones
Policy + Politics

The Marines’ Newest Weapon: 3-D Printed Drones

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Taylor N. Cooper

The 3-D printer is about to go to war along with ground troops.

The U.S. Marines are on the verge of adding compact reconnaissance drones built using 3-D printers to their combat arsenal.

The website 3D Printing Industry says that the drone, dubbed the Nibbler, will be used to gather aerial intelligence by forward-deployed, on-the-ground units.

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The body of the device is formed using a 3-D printer. The other parts needed are a motor, batteries and filament, according to Marine Times.

In early January, the Defense Department, then under Secretary Ash Carter, successfully launched a swarm of drones built on 3-D printers from F/A-18 Super Hornets.

The swarm of 103 Perdix drones – a variety of unmanned aerial vehicle originally engineered at MIT -- was a project of the Strategic Capabilities Office, which Carter created in 2012.

“This is the kind of cutting-edge innovation that will keep us a step ahead of our adversaries,” Carter said at the time of the launch.

The Marines’ initiative, while less ambitious, could also give American fighters an edge. It would be the first time such drones are employed by conventional forces.

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“Our team is very enthusiastic about the Nibbler, but even more enthusiastic about what it represents for the future,” Marine Capt. Chris Wood, who is overseeing the initiative, told Defense Systems.

Wood said being able to manufacture equipment and parts in the field “represents a revolution in the future supply chain.”

He also pointed out that 3-D printed drones, although more costly than the off-the-shelf variety that retail for about $300, are “orders of magnitude less expensive than any military-use UAS with similar performance.”

One obvious downside is that if the Marines can employ 3-D printed drones, so can enemies such as ISIS, which has already equipped store-bought drones with munitions.