Equipped with a 3D printed fuselage, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) CICADA drone is ready for a commercial partner to take the technology to the next level.
Essentially a paper plane made from a circuit board, the CICADA is configurable to any end-use, and is keeping Navy hardware expenditure down to a minimum.
A fleet of CICADAs dropped from a Blackhawk helicopter. Clip via IEEE Spectrum on Youtube
Actionable devices overnight
In recent years, the U.S. Navy has used 3D printing in a number of ways to develop “overnight” solutions for fast response situations.
The Nibbler drone, 3D printed and assembled at the Marine Corp’s innovation and logistics branch, has recently been cleared for launch into combat. And California’s Naval Postgrad School has developed designs as an alternative to current parachute drop techniques.
CICADA, which stands for Close-in Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, have been under development at NRL in Washington DC from around 2011. Now in its fifth generation, Navy researchers believe the mini unmanned aircraft is ready to take flight.
The CICADA MK5 is made using a single printed circuit board plate. The board is cut in a way that the device can be easily folded into an airborne 3D shape, and a 3D printed fuselage is used to keep the internal electronics secure.
In total, a single device weighs just 65 grams, and 18 of them can be stacked inside a 6 inch cube. As with a paper plane, flight length is dependent on the height from which it is dropped.
The CICADAs descend at a rate of 1,000 feet per minute, and are most effective when released as a swarm.
In earlier versions of the CICADA, the electronics were vulnerable to damage caused by impact and the high-velocity caused in air drop.
From the start the devices have had in-built autopilot control from a bitesized GPS chip. Researchers also experimented with chips that could send back data collected via text message.
In the current design the devices will keep transmitting information as long as the battery is live. It costs approximately $250 to make a single device which, by Navy standards, is incredibly cheap.
In the eye of a hurricane
Proposed development of the CICADAs include chips for chemical, biological and seismic sensing. Speaking to IEEE Spectrum, NRL researcher Dan Edwards explains that he’d like to see the devices dropped into the eye of hurricane.
Commenting on the next stage, Edwards adds: “The autopilot works, the guidance works, we’ve shown different launch methods. Really, we’re looking for a customer who wants to commercialize this.”
“The point of NRL is to do high risk development, understand and steer where the technology is going, and then transition those pieces of IP out to industry for manufacturing.”
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Featured image: A MK5 NRL CICADA in front of a stack of the devices. Photo by Evan Ackerman, IEEE Spectrum