Coming Soon to the Army: 3D Printers, Fuel-Efficient Robots, Cold Pizza

By Valerie Insinna

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Through cooperation with industry and academia, the Army is developing everything from lighter machine guns to individual pizza rations that soldiers can carry with them and eat cold during missions.

It will be important to maintain these kinds of technology innovations during a period of fiscal austerity, said Gen. Dennis Via, commanding general of the Army Materiel Command.

The command receives about $1.6 billion a year for its science and technology portfolio, Via said. “I’m strongly advocating that we at least need to sustain it at that level” and hopefully increase it “to conduct the kind of research that we need to be able to retain that technological edge for our forces.”

During a Feb. 19 speech at the Association of the U.S. Army Winter Symposium and Exposition, Via showcased some of the initiatives currently in the works at the command’s research-and-development facilities.

Soldiers demonstrated alternate combat uniforms designed to be more comfortable for both men and women. A TALON robot powered by a new fuel cell slowly trekked across the stage. Audience members sitting in the first row of the room were served samples of the meals ready-to-eat pizza.

Three-D printing is one of the service’s most promising technologies, Via said. Although the manufacturing technique has been around for a while, the military is still discovering what is in the art of the possible, he later told reporters at a roundtable.

"In the future, we could have a squad deployed and have that capability with them,” he said. “So if something breaks — a tool, a weapon, they need a replacement part — they can manufacture it without having to leave wherever they are."

The service is also developing a number of technologies that may one day be integrated onto vehicles. For instance, the Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center recently demonstrated its autonomous robotic mobility system when unmanned convoy vehicles drove through Fort Hood, Texas, this month.

"The goal of this effort is fully autonomous military vehicles that can operate in both urban and rural environments,” Via said. “The intention is to integrate this technology into military vehicles through a chip that contains primary intelligences and autonomous decision-making capabilities. The potential to increase logistics flexibility and, more importantly, reduce soldier fatalities is enormous."

Through the fuel efficient ground vehicle initiative, TARDEC was able to increase fuel efficiency by by 90 percent using commercial technologies, Via said.

"We took a version of this vehicle out of Jay Leno's garage, and he was extremely impressed, especially driving it down a Los Angeles highway,” he said.

The vehicle itself will not go into production, but the Army will be able to spiral components and technologies into future platforms, he said.

The service is also looking for ways to reduce the weight of equipment, Via said. One example of such a development is a conformal battery that can be worn in a tactical vest and eliminates the need for multiple batteries.

“The difference in size is easily seen, and trust me, talking to the soldiers, they can certainly feel the difference in the weight,” he said.

Vertical lift technologies will also continue to be an S&T priority for the Army, especially as the military pivots to the Asia-Pacific region. The service will need helicopters with more powerful, fuel-efficient engines that can cover greater distances, he said.

Via said he and Heidi Shyu, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, will continue to fight for funding for the future vertical lift program. The Army wants to develop four variants of future vertical lift rotorcraft to replace its current fleets, with initial operating capability of a medium version in 2035.

Industry is already contributing a lot of internal research and development funding to S&T initiatives, he acknowledged.

"What we have to do a better job is understanding what industry is doing and ... make sure industry understands what we're doing," Via said.

Topics: Armaments, Small Arms, Defense Department, DOD Budget, Human Systems, Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology

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