Within the next few weeks, the U.S. Marines are set to launch a 3D printed drone as part of their combat operations. Named “The Nibbler”, this unmanned aircraft will be the first of its kind to be used in an area of conflict by the conventional forces, and has many implications for the future of digital technology in defence.

Assembly of the Nibbler drone. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Taylor N. Cooper

Assembly of the Nibbler drone. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Taylor N. Cooper

Weapons on demand

As suggested by its name, the Nibbler is a small device designed to collect intelligence from the air. It’s simple design can be fabricated using some basic, pre-fabricated components, such as a motor and batteries, a 3D printer, and a spool of filament.

Far from the military performance of devices like DARPA’s TERN drone, the Nibbler’s ease-of-production is what sets it apart from the rest.

"U.S. Marines with II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) assemble the Nibbler drone." U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Taylor N. Cooper

“U.S. Marines with II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) assemble the Nibbler drone.” U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Taylor N. Cooper

Speaking to Defense Systems Captain Chris J. Wood of the Marine Corp’s innovation and logistics branch, explains,

Our team is very enthusiastic about the Nibbler, but even more enthusiastic about what it represents for the future […] Imagine being in a forward deployed environment, and just like Amazon, you can ‘order’ the weapons and equipment you need for the next day’s mission from an entire catalog of possible solutions.

Adoption on an international scale

The Nibbler is just one part of a series of “over night” solutions that can be produced by the military with a 3D printing facility. To this end, the Marines are in the process of introducing four new labs for the purpose, with another 25 maker units having already been deployed in the U.S. and overseas.

Other branches of the military, such as the U.S. Navy’s fleet readiness centers, are also investigating the utility of 3D printing, particularly in relation to spare parts production and design consolidation.

Randy Meeker redesigns an air duct for use inside a Navy aircraft. Photo via NAVAIR

Randy Meeker redesigns an air duct for use inside a Navy aircraft. Photo via NAVAIR

A question of security

As studies have shown, cybersecurity is still a key concern for 3D printing in the military. As yet, prevention operates on a similar rate as adoption of the technology – with projects still in their pilot stages, appropriate safety procedures are also still in development.

One suggested precaution is to create a kind of Blockchain security for the CAD data used in marine maker labs. As previously reported on 3D Printing Industry, Blockchain security for CAD data could come in the form of pre-programmed imperfections, causing improperly accessed files to fail when 3D printed with the wrong settings.

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Featured image: “The Nibbler drone is flown by U.S. Marines and civilian contractors with II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) inside of the 2nd Maintenance Battalion warehouse on Camp Lejeune, N.C., May 18, 2017.” U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Taylor N. Cooper

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