January 25, 2014

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

Source: Vice Magazine

Journalist: Arthur Holland Michel

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.”

CNAS, and just about everybody else, predicts that America’s military future is in unmanned combat vehicles, and that even one-of-a-kind jets like the F-22 will be reduced dramatically, replaced by remotely-piloted fighters that are more nimble and resiliant than the weaponized drones the military and CIA currently use. The U.S. will need combat robots—and lots of them—to maintain its strategic preeminence. The challenge is figuring out how to produce these robots quicker than anybody else. Contemplating this issue, FitzGerald and his co-author Dr. Aaron Martin, Director of Strategic Planning at Northrop Grumman saw a solution in the hobbyists, tinkerers, and 3-D printerers of the Maker movement.

FitzGerald’s concept might work for Maker-in-Chief Chris Anderson, but would it help keep the U.S. ahead of the curve? Would it suit the military’s plans for a smaller, more digitized force? By using 3-D printing and robotic assembly lines, FitzGerald reckons that the development-production- delivery cycle could be reduced from 22 years to five. Not only would the military no longer have to take delivery of their new combat systems a decade and a half late, he argues: they could also rapidly expand their force if they suddenly found themselves at war with, say, China.

So basically, FitzGerald wants worker robots to build 3-D printed killer robots in the middle of the night. “I think I saw a movie about that,” quipped an acquaintance who works for a Human Rights organization when I told him about the idea. 

“The reality would be less sexy than that, but that is essentially what it is,” FitzGerald said when I called him up. “Exciting and boring at the same time.”

FitzGerald, who grew up in the Australian city of Orange, cuts an unorthodox image for a man who spends his days advising some of the highest ranking officers in the U.S. military. When he and his beard aren’t leading Pentagon war games, in which he trains officers to disable future enemy naval fleets by using hypothetical weapons such as giant microwave pulse emitters, he says he likes to visit contemporary art galleries in D.C. with his wife. As he spoke on the phone, he switched seamlessly between explaining the challenges of multi-material additive manufacturing and waxing lyrical about Mark Rothko. Musical tastes? “Almost exclusively punk rock and heavy metal.”

A prolific reader—recently, he has been “re-reading”1984 and Kafka’s collected short stories—one would sooner mistake FitzGerald for a humanities scholar than a security expert. “I was raised by hippies turned missionaries,” he told me, “so working on national security was my only option for rebellion.” He has continued in this career, which has taken him, according to his bio, “to Afghanistan, Colombia, Sudan and most dangerously, Twentynine Palms, CA.” because, he told me in an email, “it's rare to be able to work in a field where ideas have so much consequence.”

But if the idea of a 3-D printed drone paradigm seems a bit far-fetched to have real consequences, that’s because the technology is not quite there. While 3-D printing is great for making bikinis, it is much more tricky to print complex aircraft components out of metals like titanium, and we are still figuring out how to make multi-material 3-D printed objects. FitzGerald and Martin admit in the report that "the technologies required to enable this new paradigm have not yet reached full production maturity." In other words, the proposal is structured around the assumption that this will eventually be possible. Nevertheless, FitzGerald is confident.

"The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed yet,” he told me, quoting William Gibson. If Defense Distributed can 3-D print an assault-rifle, then the U.S. military's contractors—say, Northrup Grumman—could print a few thousand drones if it set itself to the task. Northrup already uses 3-D printed air ducts in its X-47B stealth drone, and Boeing has experimented with the idea too. Earlier this month, the British air giant BAE Systems said it had built working parts for the Royal Air Force's Tornado fighter jet, including a cockpit radio cover and components in the landing gear, using a 3D printer at an Air Force base. “You are suddenly not fixed in terms of where you have to manufacture these things,” one official at BAE told the Telegraph.

Elsewhere, FitzGerald has described how militaries could even bring mobile 3-D printers into the field to build replacement components right where the action is. Meanwhile, in Japan automotive manufacturers have started running 24-hour “lights out” factories in which robots continue building cars through the night after their co-workers have clocked out.

The benefits of FitzGerald's 3D printed drone could extend well beyond the remote-controlled battlefield: commercial aircraft manufacturers could produce all airplane parts faster and more cheaply, and could produce much more cusomizeable aircraft to suit customer preferences. The dividends might be a more efficient and sustainable airline industry—the huge delays on planes like the 787 could cease to be the norm. The technological hurdles could be surmounted in time, though the effects on human workers might be more complicated

The biggest challenge will be getting the top-brass to embrace FitzGerald’s radical vision for the future. You’d hardly expect the military to jump on the bandwagon of a neo-anarchistic paradigm like the Maker movement. Nor would you expect it to take notes from a Kafka-loving, beard-grooming metal-head like FitzGerald. And yet, unless they actually want to get left behind with another F-22 Discman project, they should probably pay attention to the beard.


  • Ben FitzGerald

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Defense Program

    Ben FitzGerald is a partner at Lupa, a private investment firm, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). At Lupa he leads the firm’s inve...