Read about the legacy of innovation, entrepreneurship, and the ever-changing technology that has transformed our world.  

The History of Innovation Continues: Maritime Drones and 3D Technology in the U.S. Navy

By Michael Deets, Public History Center Fellow, Christopher Newport University, Class of 2017
Editor: Dr. Sheri M. Shuck Hall, Associate Professor of History, Director of the Public History Center, Christopher Newport University

The United States Navy evolved dramatically through technology, and continues to seek the latest innovations so that it may remain modern, strong, and dominant. Recently, the U.S. Navy has implemented new technology that makes life on board a ship a little easier for the sailors and our nation a lot safer. Two of the more intriguing technological advances are the use of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and additive (or 3D) printing.

For well over a decade, the Navy has been relying on unmanned vehicles for a variety of missions, from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to anti-submarine warfare, payload delivery, airstrikes, mine detecting, and ship hull inspections. The Navy now views UUVs as an integral part of its future fleet.

One of the underwater drones that they have launched from a submarine is the Hydroid Remus 600. “The Remus 600 is a 500-pound, 3.25-meter long UUV equipped with dual-frequency side-scanning sonar technology, synthetic aperture sonar, acoustic imaging, video cameras and GPS devices.”[1] These UUV’s are launched from the base of submarines and are able to work for over twenty hours or more depending on the life of the battery.

remus 600
Remus 600, Courtesy of Hydroid

A major breakthrough in technology came about during the summer of 2016. Boeing released its latest unmanned, undersea vehicle (UUV), which can “operate autonomously for months at a time thanks to a hybrid rechargeable power system and modular payload bay.”[2] The 51-foot-long Echo Voyager is not the first UUV in the Navy’s fleet, but what is so unique and advanced with this new vehicle is that unlike many UUVs, it can be launched and recovered without a support ship. This UUV joins the 18-foot Echo Ranger and the 32-foot Echo Seeker, which were introduced in 2001 and 2015, respectively.

Echo Seeker
32-Foot Echo Seeker, 2015, Courtesy of Boeing

According to Lance Towers (Director, Sea & Land, Boeing Phantom Works), unlike its predecessors, “Echo Voyager can collect data while at sea, rise to the surface, and provide information back to users in a near real-time environment.”[3] Another advantage of the Echo Voyager is that it eliminates that need and associated costs of having a support ship and crew.  This technology significantly reduces the operational costs of the mission because it eliminates the requirement for large crews and support infrastructure. Additionally, previous undersea vehicles from Boeing could operate on their own for only two to three days at a time, whereas the Echo Voyager can operate for up to three months because of the hybrid rechargeable power system and modular payload bay. The UUVs serve military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) roles. The Echo Voyager can patrol waters in areas around the world where the Navy might not want to risk sending manned submarines.[4]

echo voyager
Echo Voyager, UUV, 2016, Courtesy of Boeing

Video: “Echo Voyager: Part of Boeing’s UUV Family,” March 10, 2016 in Defense

Investments made in the new state of the art technologies are paramount for the United States Navy and for our country. The use of 3D printers and UUVs enables the U.S. to maintain the country’s superiority when it comes to naval warfare. The Navy through research, development, testing, and integration of new technology, seeks to maintain the most state-of-the-art, dominant and powerful Navy in the entire world.

Over the past several years, the United States Navy has been interested in acquiring 3D printers in the hopes that they will reduce the wait for replacement parts, improve readiness, decrease costs, and avoid shipping parts around the world. The Navy envisions a future with 3D printers forward deployed with Marines and installed aboard warships as well as shore-based commands.  In 2014, the USS Essex was the first U.S. Navy ship to have a 3D printer installed. The experimental testing was so promising that two more 3D metal printers were installed on board the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge in late 2015.

Three-dimensional (3D) printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is not just a singular new technology. 3D printing combines the Internet’s fast access to information with what Paul Markeillie from The Economist calls the “Third Industrial Revolution.”[5] While the precise method varies by printer, in general 3D printers build up from nothing to a finalized product, typically by spraying a fill material, layer by layer, from nozzle jets similar to an inkjet printer.[6]

“The Third Industrial Revolution” interview with Paul Markeillie from The Economist

3D printer
U.S. Navy 3D printer, 2014, Courtesy of military.com

One of the most immediate ways 3D printing will impact the Navy fleet is that the 3D printer will alleviate the need to carry large stocks of re-manufactured items. When the first 3-D printer was installed on board the USS Essex, it was a turning point for the United States Navy. The new technology allowed sailors to print replacement parts and surgical tools along with a variety of shipboard items from oil reservoir caps and deck drains and covers.[7]

deck drains
USS Essex deck drains made from 3D printer, Courtesy of U.S. Naval Institute

It was groundbreaking because before the printer was installed, the ship would have been out of luck for days or even weeks waiting for a new item to be flown out to the ship or until they reached the next port. Now, within days or hours of identifying a needed part on a ship, a 3D model can be designed and uploaded to a printer for production. Along with saving time, it also will reduce the amount of resources that are devoted to maintaining a large inventory of parts that may or may not even be used.

3D items
3D printed items, such as wrenches, are displayed at a Print the Fleet workshop, 2014, Courtesy of U.S. Navy

Currently, 3-D printers are doing far more than just printing replacement tools. In 2015 the U.S. Navy started testing the use of 3D printers on its ships to produce custom parts for drones outfitted for specialized missions. The idea of printing drone parts, as needed, is one that could greatly improve intelligence while also decreasing the likelihood of Navy personnel being put into harm’s way. In order for the drone to be built by the 3D printer, data files and models of the drones are sent via satellite from land to the USS Essex, and eventually other ships within the Navy fleet. Then the files can be 3D printed in a matter of hours. Once printed, the parts can be assembled together with other electronic devices that are already on board these ships. This new technology allows one to create virtually any type of drone that may be required for any specific mission.[8]

drone built.png
Drone built by a 3D printer on board the USS Essex, July 2015, Courtesy of 3D Print.com

Three Dimensional (3D) printing is the wave of the future for the United States Navy.  At first the 3D printer was only used to produce replacement parts and surgical tools, along with a variety of shipboard items from oil reservoir caps and desk covers, but then the possibilities expanded. It can be used for creating spare parts for older weapons systems that no longer have parts being made by conventional methods or to build cheap, disposable aerial drones. Eventually, once safety and cyber security issues are ironed out, it might be ideal for every large vessel in the Navy to have at least one 3D printer.  Looking ahead, the potential cost and capability benefits are immense with these cutting-edge technologies.

Notes

[1] Kris Osborn, “Navy to Deploy First Underwater Drones from Submarines.” Military.com. Accessed January 21, 2017. http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/04/13/navy-to-deploy-first-underwater-drones-from-submarines.html.

[2] Boeing, “Echo Voyager: Part of Boeing’s UUV Family.” Boeing March 10, 2016. http://www.boeing.com/features/2016/03/bds-echo-voyager-03-16.page

[3] Kevin McCaney, “Boeing’s new autonomous UUV can run for months at a Time.” Defense Systems March 14, 2016. https://defensesystems.com/articles/2016/03/14/boeing-echo-voyager-uuv.aspx

[4] Brittany Woolsey, “Boeing Adds to its Undersea Vehicles Squad.” LA Times. March 17, 2016.  http://www.latimes.com/socal/hb-independent/news/tn-hbi-me-0317-boeing-undersea-system-20160317-story.html

[5] Paul Markillie, “The Third Industrial Revolution,” The Economist, April 19, 2012 http://www.economist.com/node/21553017; also see https://paulmarkillie.com for more articles and perspectives on 3D printing.

[6] S. Cheney-Peters and M. Hipple. “Print me a CRUISER!” United States Naval Institute. Proceedings, 139(4) 2013, 52-57. Retrieved from https://0-search-proquest-com.read.cnu.edu/docview/1355953755?accountid=10100

[7] Vice Admiral Phillip Cullom, “5 Things to Know About Navy 3D Printing.” Navylive: The Official Blog of the U.S. Navy. July 15, 2014. http://navylive.dodlive.mil/2014/07/15/5-things-to-know-about-navy-3d-printing/

[8] Eddie Krassenstein, “US Navy is 3D Printing Custom Drones On board the USS Essex.” 3D Print.com. July 30, 2015.

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