Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller has said many times that he wants to equip every infantry squad with a quadcopter drone that can aid situational awareness on patrols. But there's a chance the service won't need to buy the drones it wants, thanks to 3D printing technology tested out by a Marine Corps task force during a recent deployment to the Middle East.
In addition executing air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, supporting embassy security, and providing advise-and-assist aid to Iraqi ground troops, the Marines of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Central Command set up and operated a first-of-its kind 3D printing lab downrange.
The lab churned out wrenches, medical supplies, replacement parts, and at least 25 copies of "Nibbler," a small quadcopter that can operate for 20 to 25 minutes at a stretch and be freely modified to meet Marines' requirements.
Marines dubbed the operation "Ripper Lab," using the nickname of 7th Marine Regiment, which provided the command element for the task force, said Col. Bill Vivian, commander of the rotation and the regiment. Some 48 personnel ran the whole additive manufacturing operation, 44 from the task force and four from the Air Force.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Vivian said Neller himself had touted the possibility of making Nibbler the quadcopter solution for infantry squads.
"When he came out and visited us in June, he was very enthusiastic about it," Vivian said. "Across the entire Marine Corps ... it takes time to get the training and then the resources, i.e., money to buy the materials and 3D printers and things like that. But 3D printers are coming to each installation in the Marine Corps and that's starting to unfold now, so I think those possibilities are getting close."
The systems cost about $2,000 apiece to print, significantly more than the $500 price tag Neller has mentioned for off-the-shelf systems. But printing on-site does come with built-in advantages that can save money, such as the ability to print replacement parts cheaply, said Maj. Miguel Cruz, logistics officer for the task force.
On the most recent deployment, Marines used the Nibblers to better understand and guard against the threat from enemy unmanned aerial systems, used to surveil U.S. positions downrange.
"Really it built the understanding of how these things are put together," Vivian said. "They can be locally manufactured, we know that ISIS is doing that. And then how can it be used, we know the strengths and weaknesses, limitations, so the Marines can better understand the threats that we used against them."
Ultimately, the printed drones were put to operational use in the hands of Marine security forces standing post at forward locations, he said.
Vivian said he found Marines were enthusiastic to take on the new mission.
"Since we engaged and we let Marines at the lowest level know we're wrestling with this new technology, we found out a lot of them were doing it anyway -- several Marines had their own 3D printers," he said. "And so just taking advantage of natural talents we have out there, we were able to pull them in and use them to our advantage. It helped retention; Marines were very excited and we were able to do some things faster than we otherwise would have been able to."
The task force was replaced by a new rotation in the Middle East in August, but Vivian and Cruz said work will continue to improve the Nibbler, increasing its range and loiter time and building in better camera capabilities.
"Some of the best innovation comes from people who have practical problems they're trying to solve," he said. "It actually stimulates creativity to kind of advance the state of the art."