Nibbler Drone Is an Advanced Manufacturing "Flagship" for Marines

January 2019
Topics: Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Unmanned Systems, Military Equipment, Government Acquisition, Innovation
MITRE developed the "Nibbler," a 3-D printed, low-cost surveillance quadcopter that Marines can make and repair themselves. The Nibbler story demonstrates how advanced manufacturing benefits warfighters by disrupting the traditional acquisition process.
Nibbler drone on a table

The Nibbler drone was created through 3D printing to be low cost, easily repaired and have simple maintenance to allow Marines to use it. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Taylor N. Cooper.)

It all started with a robot named Matilda.

That was the name MITRE's Michael Balazs gave the robot when he got the job of refurbishing her in 2011. Matilda was back from a conflict region in terrible shape, complete with a dead rat in the box.

She was an early robot with limited capabilities, made of metal and plastic, with rubber tracks. And the original manufacturer had charged hundreds of thousands of dollars for each unit like her. So, refurbishing Matilda seemed to make sense.

But Balazs thought, "There has to be a better way."

In 2012, Balazs and his team came up with an idea for a vastly less expensive solution that would be easier and faster to produce. Working with the University of Virginia (UVA) they used 3-D printing to develop a fixed-wing flying drone called the Razor, with a smartphone functioning as the brains, GPS, camera, and video.

The Razor evolved into the Nibbler, a quadcopter that can conduct surveillance and many other missions. Andy Chapman, project lead for the Nibbler, says the importance of the quadcopter goes beyond its capabilities. "Nibbler is a flagship that demonstrates the realm of the possible using the power of advanced manufacturing."

The Marines Take an Interest

In 2015, science writer David Hambling published Swarm Troopers, a book about how small drones would conquer the world. One chapter highlighted MITRE and UVA's work on Razor

A year later, Jonathan Gillis, then a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant from Camp Lejeune, picked the book up in an airport and read it on a flight across the country. Recognizing the potential of low- cost drones for the Marines, he reached out to MITRE. Soon after, Michael Balazs, Shawn Gillum, Andy Chapman, and Jonathan Rotner found themselves briefing a Marine captain.

In November 2016, the captain funded a small project for them to build a quadcopter for the Marines. Within one month, MITRE delivered the first Nibbler (named after Futurama's Lord Nibbler) customized to Marine Corps requirements.

The same week of the delivery, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller stated, “At the end of next year, my goal is that every deployed Marine infantry squad has their own quadcopter.

"The Nibbler Surge"

The Marine Corps asked MITRE to build 72 Nibblers. In keeping with MITRE's focus on developing solutions for a safer world rather than manufacturing products, Balazs modified the request to incorporate teaching the Marines how to build them. "We went one step further and suggested doing it in less than 90 days," says Balazs. "Someone called it 'the Nibbler Surge,' and the name stuck."

The surge kicked off in mid-April and concluded June 23 with the last of four training sessions complete—all within 60 days.

There were three major phases to the surge: acquisition, training documentation generation, and in-the-field training. Each phase was an agile process that incorporated the challenges and feedback into what worked and what didn’t. After each training session, MITRE made small adjustments, such as updates to documentation, to assure a smoother training session the next time around.

The acquisition process consisted of sourcing parts from a dozen different vendors across multiple countries. The process used a distributed 3D printing network that included MITRE, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). Marines organized the parts into assembly kits before shipping them out to each training location.

In parallel, MITRE wrote documentation and created a training video on how to build, program, test, and fly the Nibbler. MITRE team members performed hands-on training at Camp Lejeune, Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, and Kuwait. In Kuwait, the MITRE team joined participants from the Marines, Air Force, and Army for two build sessions and two flight days.

Balazs says his team was impressed by the ingenuity, passion, and creativity of the participants. One Marine corporal repaired a crashed Nibbler on his own. Another corporal taught his peers how to set up the Nibbler software after a single day of training. Meanwhile, a chief warrant officer thought about how to maintain and sustain advanced manufacturing as a capability and had printed the Nibbler out of a different kind of material by the time the MITRE team flew home.

The Significance of Advanced Manufacturing for the Military

Andy Chapman explains why it is so significant that the Marines were able to build their own quadcopters. "The normal acquisition process is like a giant game of telephone with the requirements being gathered and interpreted by engineers, manufacturers, service, and parts supply people, and more. Years may pass in that process—and millions of dollars—and by the time the system is finally delivered to the warfighter, the world has changed. The system no longer matches the warfighter's needs."

Balazs says, "The most important part of the Nibbler is that it is a disruption in the normal acquisition and manufacturing process. By putting this technology into the hands of Marines around the globe—building, flying, repairing them—they can identify and feedback what they need, and continue to be innovative as they use the equipment. Plus, they are better able to anticipate what adversaries are doing with similar technologies."

He added that other kinds of equipment such as drones with more cutting-edge technologies and using the same open source, low-cost approach have been put into the hands of the Marines much sooner than in the traditional acquisition process. "That’s something that our sponsors are committed to doing."

As for Matilda, she's in great shape now. She's totally refurbished, with fresh paint, and new tracks—and on a new mission as a mobile launchpad for Nibbler.

—by Bill Eidson

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