Open, Commercial Technologies Lead to Cost-Effective Reconnaissance Solutions

December 2013
Topics: Technological Innovations, Open Source Software, Software Design, Unmanned Systems
MITRE’s sponsors need a quick, low-cost solution to providing reconnaissance in the field. Our researchers applied commercial technologies to create a completely 3D-printed, sensors-carrying aerial platform controlled by a smartphone.
MITRE's Jonathan Rotner demonstrates 3D-printed aerial platform.

The U.S. military will for the foreseeable future engage in irregular warfare operations, during which the speed of response may determine the outcome. U.S. technological superiority in such confrontations is no longer a given. Our enemies respond too quickly for us to develop fully engineered solutions. For this reason, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) users require rapidly reconfigurable platforms that take advantage of current technology. The outcome? Effective, cost-conscious military and domestic forces that can use open, commercially available technology for their missions.

Today, the government leases or buys unmanned aircraft systems manufactured by private corporations. Aside from the expense, upgrades present numerous issues:

  • They are costly and time-consuming
  • Replacements parts must be stored or shipped
  • Customizing or modifying platforms and sensors follows no standardized process
  • Users must address information assurance on a per-platform basis.

A solution lies in taking advantage of the $150 billion commercial smartphone industry as the core of an open, mobile ISR system. Concurrently, moving from traditional to advanced manufacturing (such as 3D printing) results in a physical platform that accommodates the ideal sensors for the job. Such platforms can also be rapidly redesigned to suit a dynamic operational environment.

Pairing platform and technique significantly reduces development time, while enhancing compatibility across forces and adaptability to a constantly changing threat.

Effective, Affordable, and Fast

In August 2013, MITRE flew a completely 3D-printed aerial platform successfully for the first time. The Razor takes advantage of advanced manufacturing techniques: 3D-printed without support material, the Razor's parts snap together like Legos. Its modular wings and fuselage are customizable to different environmental conditions and mission payload requirements. No lightweight, the Razor cruises for approximately 45 minutes at 40 mph, sprinting when necessary to more than 100 mph. The platform prints for less than $550.

From the software perspective, we have replaced a proprietary autopilot (common on military unattended aerial vehicles), with open source software devices. An onboard Android device performs mission logic while a commercial-off-the-shelf autopilot controls the plane's surfaces. The onboard phone becomes the brains of the unmanned system, directing the autopilot to waypoints, employing its communications, and making decisions with sensor feedback. The cost for both components is $600.

Over the past year, MITRE scientists have successfully flown multiple 3D-printed platforms, running missions on an aerial system composed of commercial, open technologies, for a total fielded cost of $2,000 (inclusive of the platform, auto-pilot, avionics and ground station).

—by Dr. Michael A. Balazs and Jonathan Rotner


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