The US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) is conducting a project that could enable soldiers to 3D print anything from food to shelter and weapons on battlefields in the future.
Called Project Prime, DEVCOM is spearheading the project alongside the US Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and remote 3D printing secured transmission service DEFEND3D. The initiative is testing a deployable 3D printer with DEFEND3D’s Virtual Inventory Communication Interface (VICI) for secure, speedy, and accurate printing in remote locations.
“Despite a network connection categorized commercially as having low to no connection, VICI facilitated speedy, secure and accurate printing,” said Dr Patrick Fowler, DEVCOM Global Technology Advisor at ITC-UK. “Based on expectations set at the beginning of the project, VICI did everything we needed it to do, and 7th SFG (A) was satisfied with the system performance and endorsed the capability for further development and implementation.”
DEFEND3D’s technology is designed to securely transmit remote 3D printing and other digital manufacturing data through its patented security protocol, VICI. The main cybersecurity risks in 3D printing center around IP theft and process sabotage, with the US Department of Defense’s (DoD) first official additive manufacturing strategy coming under fire from an independent watchdog that claimed the technology creates “unnecessary cybersecurity risks.”
Equipped with a One-Click-Print capability, VICI removes the need for file transfers by enabling the secure digital resupply of reproduction parts to remote locations. Rather than sending 3D files, DEFEND3D essentially allows a digital asset to be live-streamed to the 3D printer in real-time, providing only the vital information to be accessed before instantly deleting it. The platform does this by issuing a stream of reproduction instructions that are secured by six levels of security.
Essentially, VICI ensures end-to-end encryption to allow organizations to store their designs locally on their home server while using their virtual inventory to manufacture parts in remote locations. All manufacturing jobs are recorded through the interface to provide an audit trail throughout the entire digital supply chain, while variables like machine settings and material types can be set to ensure manufacturing and quality standards are met.
DEFEND3D’s platform is designed for military, aerospace, defense, or energy companies and organizations that wish to deliver 3D printed parts to and from anywhere in the world while still protecting their IP and preventing cyber attacks.
The company first introduced its technology in September last year, revealing an ongoing partnership with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) to test the VICI platform. The MOD praised the platform’s “game-changing capability” in allowing it to overcome its current reticence of sending sensitive parts overseas, after the platform successfully linked up a central design hub in a secure facility with multiple deployed locations that do not have engineering specialists on hand.
Project Prime was initiated after DEVCOM’s International Technology Centers (ITCs) identified and scouted DEFEND3D’s VICI as a potential vehicle for enabling the deployment of additive manufacturing technology to remote locations, such as battlefields.
Soldiers from the 7th SFG (A) tested the VICI by repeatedly adding and printing additive manufacturing files via the platform’s One-Click-Print protocol. The project is based on the premise of a deployed soldier communicating a need for a spare part or modification to the CAD element at 7th SFG (A). The CAD element then either designs the part from scratch or chooses from a database of commonly used components before streaming it to the soldier in the field, who can then 3D print the part.
Because the file is never sent, VICI would prevent hackers from accessing the information and identifying vulnerabilities in the US Army’s equipment and capabilities.
“We made it a priority to pursue avenues that will allow us to operate in environments that are not conducive to regular resupply efforts,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jesse Peters of the Innovation Cell at 7th SFG (A). “For detachments to stay in the fight in these environments, we explored systems that operate outside the conventional supply chains.
“Project Prime’s deployable 3D printer and VICI software enables secure transmission and an easy-to-use interface.”
In addition to enabling the secure transmission of remote files, DEFEND3D’s VICI platform removes the need for the individual operating the 3D printer to be an additive manufacturing expert in order to print the files.
The VICI interface also prevents overloading of the US Army’s network since forward-deployed soldiers would only see the objects they have requested for their mission. Files are also stored in a shareable repository, including files created by the DoD and its coalition networks.
“Imagine this scenario – a clever Green Beret on a remote base develops a novel attachment for an existing unmanned aircraft system, which is stored in VICI,” said Fowler. “Then, a clever Airman across the world at a remote airfield sees it and adds his/her twist. Next, a British Soldier prints it and starts using it in his/her own operations.”
Feedback and future actions
Over the course of Project Prime, the VICI platform was tested in real-world conditions. Feedback was gathered in real-time as deployed soldiers communicated with the 7th SFG (A) Innovation Cells, while further information was collected after the training was completed, such as the pros and cons of the system and its software interface, as well as the training requirements and long-term durability of the technology.
As a result, 7th SFG (A) is planning to train more of its soldiers on the technology to support a US Army Southern Command deployment. Once this deployment is completed, DEVCOM will compile the results and make Project Prime’s achievements available to the broader DoD community.
The project partners believe the information will benefit other DEVCOM centers and research laboratories, and could even fill gaps within other US Army units.
“We’re looking for funding to further develop VICI to make it operable on a cell phone or a small device, including a Raspberry Pi, which is a very small computer that plugs into a computer monitor, TV, or similar small end-user devices,” added Fowler.
“This will make the solution, which is currently used on a laptop, even more deployable.”
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Featured image shows soldiers from 7th SFG (A) were a key part of Project Prime. Photo via US Army.