New 3D printed antenna designs cut back value, weight and measurement

Anna Stumme, US Naval Research Laboratory electrical engineer, makes adjustments to an array in the anechoic chamber of the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, September 5, 2019. Stumme creates and tests prototype parts developed using traditional and 3D printed methods. Photo credit: Photo by Jonathan Steffen

Experts from the US Naval Research Laboratory created and tested 3D-printed antennas and arrays to advance radar technology and enable new applications for the US Navy.

The easy and fast production of 3D printed parts makes it an attractive alternative to traditional manufacturing, which often requires expensive materials and special equipment.

“3D printing is a way to quickly prototype and go through multiple iterations of design very quickly and at minimal cost,” said NRL electrical engineer Anna Stumme. “The low weight of the printed parts also enables us to use the technology for new applications where the high weight of the solid metal parts restrict us.”

Radar systems fulfill important functions for the navy and remain an important part of maritime shipping and national defense. Parts for antennas and arrays that are multiple antennas connected together can unexpectedly break or wear out and must be replaced. Traditionally, metal parts are ordered or elaborately processed, which sometimes takes weeks. 3-D printed radar parts such as For example, a cylindrical arrangement that offers 360-degree visibility can be produced within hours compared to several days using conventional methods due to the reduced processing and assembly time.

In addition to the production advantages, the relatively low cost of 3D printing materials allows researchers to test multiple versions of parts with minimal overhead. The perfected prototypes can then be processed using conventional methods. Once a prototype has been successfully made, be it 3D printed or traditionally made, it must undergo rigorous testing before it can be used operationally. That’s the “superpower,” said Stumme and her colleagues – they can quickly run a variety of tests on new designs with 3D printed parts.

“We’re not trying to say that we have to 3D print everything and put it on a ship because that’s not realistic,” said Stumme. “We don’t necessarily know how it would fare in this environment. For us, it’s a way to test more design iterations in less time.”

In early 2019, Stumme submitted a paper to the Antenna Applications Symposium that compared 3D printed parts with traditionally manufactured parts. She won the student paper competition for her research.

New applications

Stumme and her colleagues are exploring how weight and size constrained applications like unmanned aerial vehicles or small ships can benefit from 3D printed parts. Many of the 3D prototypes are printed in the NRL Autonomous Systems Research Facility using lightweight nylon. Once the part is printed, it goes through a process called electroplating.

During the electroplating process, a thin layer of metal is applied to the printed part. Electroplating provides a conductive surface on which the device can shine as intended. something that cannot be done with plastic alone. The result is a lightweight prototype that can then be evaluated for a variety of attributes such as surface roughness – an important factor for the functionality of antenna elements.

Stumme works with NRL materials scientists from across the NRL who conduct a critical surface roughness characterization. The surface roughness characterization provides an assessment of the coating of an antenna and the effect of the roughness on performance.

“Surface roughness is important for waveguides and antennas as it can cause leakage and result in a less efficient antenna,” said Nick Charipar, director of applied materials and systems. “Antennas radiate and receive waves. When a wave travels on a rough surface, it’s distorted and the energy may not go where you want it to go.”

Charipar and his team, part of the NRL materials science and technology department, are prototyping 3D printed parts for the NRL radar department. Once the part is created, the researchers study how the material characteristics affect the functionality of the radar. Every 3D printer has unique properties that can affect product performance. If researchers can figure out the optimal parameters for certain 3D printed parts, Stumme and her colleagues agree that ships for these critical parts could become self-contained anywhere in the world.

Next Steps

Despite the current COVID-19 restrictions, research at the NRL continues to thrive remotely. Later that year, Stumme and her colleagues plan to demonstrate new prototypes of cylindrical array openings for an X-band surveillance radar demonstration in a laboratory setting. The X-band surveillance radar is used to search the surroundings of a particular platform, e.g. B. a ship. They are investigating the integration of cylindrical arrays into the masts of smaller vessels using microwave photonics and optical fibers.

“Cylindrical arrays are beneficial because they offer full 360-degree visibility,” said Mark Dorsey, antenna director in the radar analysis division of the radar division and project leader. “Optical fibers are valuable because they can allow long distances between the antenna itself and the processing site.”

The use of fiberglass reduces the number of components required on the mast of a Navy vessel, further reducing heat and weight restrictions. The demonstration will include testing traditionally made and 3D printed versions of the array to compare performance. Stumme designed both versions.

The team is to carry out field tests on the prototype in 2021. The demonstration will take place in the final year of their four year effort to make the array more practical for use on smaller platforms and to show how arrays can be easily used with optical fibers. The research is funded through NRL core funding.

Improving 3D Printing of Plastic Parts Provided by the Naval Research Laboratory

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