3D-Printed Drone Designed by U.S. Marine Corporal Costs 200× Less Than Models Currently in Use

Created from 3D-printed components and off-the-shelf electronics, the stripped-down drone is controlled via a smartphone app. 

With the help of a four-month residency at Autodesk’s Pier 9 technology center, a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps used additive manufacturing to make a drone that costs 200 times less than the models currently used by the Marines.

The RQ-11 Raven and RQ-12 Wasp III drones used by the Marine Corps for surveillance and light payloads cost between $35,000 and $50,000 each, and require a ground control system that costs more than $100,000. Because of the high price, only a few Marines are authorized to fly the drones, and crashes result in expensive repairs.

Rhet McNeal, a 26-year-old corporal who holds a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech, set out to create a drone that was portable, stripped-down and inexpensive enough that the Marine Corps would not be afraid to use it. 

He and five other collaborators put together a proposal for a drone made of four easily printable 3D parts that can fit into a standard-issue Marine assault pack and be assembled in just a few minutes. The drone, called Scout, cost only $613 to build, using off-the-shelf electronics, 3D printer resin and the Q Ground Control iPhone app. The proposal was selected by the Marines’ Next Generation Logistics innovation group as one of 17 winning ideas in its 2016 Logistics Innovation Challenge.

Winning the Logistics Innovation Challenge gave McNeal access to the U.S. Navy University-affiliated research center at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory to work on the drone’s design and production. But late in 2016, the Marines’ co-lead for additive manufacturing, Captain Christopher Wood, let McNeal know about an opening for a four-month residency at Pier 9. McNeal started the residency in January 2017, hoping to use Autodesk’s Inventor, Fusion 360 and Netfabb, as well as the Pier 9 community’s feedback, to push his prototype forward and fine-tune the design.

Once McNeal finished his residency and built a functioning drone, he returned to base and handed over Scout’s design files and build specifications for testing, certification and, potentially, wider-scale production.