3D printed drone ushers in era of disposable aircraft

3D printed drone ushers in era of disposable aircraft

Summary: Low cost UAVs such as this could be sent on one-way search or reconnaissance missions, say engineers.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech
The 3D printed drone at the University of Sheffield's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre

A disposable 3D printed drone had been developed which could be built and flying within 24 hours.

Engineers at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield have printed the 1.5m-wide prototype as part of research into 3D printing of complex designs. The researchers said the low cost of printing such 3D aircraft could see them used for one-way flights for search, reconnaissance or even deliveries.

The engineers said the polymer craft could form the basis of cheap or disposable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which could, for example, be built and deployed in remote situations.

While earlier versions of the craft required significant amounts of support material around component parts to prevent the airframe from deforming during the build process, new 3D printing techniques — such as the fused deposition modelling (FDM) used to make the UAV at Sheffield — could reduce that.

The UAV has already completed a test flight as a glider, and the researchers are now developing an electric ducted fan propulsion system to incorporated into the airframe's central spine, and to fly the craft via GPS by an operator wearing first person-view goggles.

The Sheffield UAV comprises nine parts that can be snapped together, weighs less than 2kg and is made from thermoplastic. The engineers are looking at nylon as a printing material that would make the UAV stronger with no increase in weight.

Further reading

Topic: Emerging Tech

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  • The hard parts of the UAV are still not printable.

    The wireless, and control hardware.

    Any electric parts... those are the expensive parts, and are not easily replaced.
    • on the contrary

      the complex geometric shapes (for aerodynamics etc) are proprietary and labor intensive. Sure you can do it with a CNC machine but that costs many times more than a 3D printer which are now commodities.

      The motors are also commodities- go to any hobby shop and you can buy parts cheap. Depends how sophisticated this needs to be.
  • For a plane you're probably talking about a motor and battery,

    possibly a second motor for steering, etc.

    The rest of the electronic (as opposed to electrical) parts could probably be fairly cheap. They don't need a lot of customization and could probably be mainly a system-on-a-chip with a micro SD card to hold customized Linux software. Obviously, you would be talking about fairly limited range for the on-board transmitter -- several miles at most.
  • Cheap and Disposable

    If the plane with the electronics is so cheap as to be disposable, it is unlikely to be reliable and have the data transmission as well as control secure.
  • Too complicated

    Prebuilt balsa-wood airframes usually cost about $100. Why go for something as complicated as specialized 3-D printing that requires thousands of dollars of equipment and a highly trained operator?
    • if you're going to make quite a lot of these, thousands of these

      I would imagine injection molding or similar would be more cost effective.

      If you're looking at hundreds, maybe not so much.
    • Interesting question with an obvious answer.

      "Prebuilt balsa-wood airframes usually cost about $100. Why go for something as complicated as specialized 3-D printing that requires thousands of dollars of equipment and a highly trained operator"

      In the simplest of terms, its the very same kinds of reasons the airforce dosnt use WWI era biplanes and instead uses high tech designs with complex aerodynamics and materials.

      I don't think anyone has ever said that the armed forces can show a specific cost to benefit analysis for improved equipment all the time, meaning, while the newer equipment is usually much better then the old, particularly the older you go back to, it may not always be that an item that cost 4 or 5 times as much to produce as a similar older item is at least 4-5 times as effective. For example, if its 3 times as good, you gain the knock on effect and additional advantage of now not having to put personnel into three older vehicles to be as potent a force as the new single unit.

      In the case of a drone, certainly at this point in time drones appear to be used in more secretive missions, so firstly you don't want to send two or three where one will do, and in any instance where you can gain advantages in a vehicle like this even minor advantages in new models over older designs may easily become frequent difference makes in completion of a mission or not. More costly designs, even where they are quite a bit more costly and make only minor improvements in performance, in the field those minor improvements can often yield disproportionately positive results.

      I had someone give me an anecdote years ago that seems to fit here.

      If your thirsty and someone sells you a cup of water real cheap, but its only about 80% of what you need to quench your thirst, and you find yourself really wanting a little more water badly, you might pay double for the last 20% of that water you need to quench your thirst than what you paid for the first 80%. One quarter the amount at double the price. But its that last 20% that got the job done. When you can afford it, its worth it. Particularly if your competition just dosnt have it and they are hobbling around still thirsty for more and your good to go.

      And that's why the prebuilt $100 balsa airframe is probably not the wisest of routes.
  • 3D printing and carbon nanotubes

    All kinds of things like this will be overtaken in the next 5-10 years by technology like carbon nanotube embedded 3D printing. Drones, guns, etc. made from this material will actually be stronger and lighter than anything else like them, and as the technology scales up, cheaper to create. Most significantly, such technology will be impossible to regulate, because the open source plans for the 3D printers themselves will be readily available.

    It's hard to imagine how that will change the world around us...
  • The Hype Cycle

    Just toss "3D printing" on something and watch the hype.

    There is nothing cheap about current 3D printing. If you wanted to make cheap throwaway drones you would build them out of mold injected plastics. Now the molds you could 3D print but that is just CNC milling, nothing new there.
    Rann Xeroxx
    • Agreed.

      I know someone who purchased a 3d printer, and he says they are neither cheap to use, or perfect for that matter. Still a bit of maintenance after each print for affordable models, apparently.

      I used it to make a few parts for a costume, and it performed quite nicely and created exactly what I needed it to make, but beyond that I'm not sure it was the ideal device for high volume production runs.
  • 3D printing will be like the CD burner.

    Remember the first affordable CD burners?

    Which may vary quite a bit, depending on what your definition of affordable is. But at any rate, the early ones that an average person could justify paying for to have installed in their home PC were neither cheap or fast.

    But for many, it was a mind blowing revelation when they soon figured out what they really had and what it could do.

    And there is no denying that the impact the CD burner had on the software and music/movie/gaming/entertainment industries was significant to say the least.

    But of course, the major difference with how a 3D printer is currently perceived and a CD burner was perceived was that a CD burner didn't just put content on a CD, a burner could copy the content from another CD and place it on a fresh one with pinpoint accuracy. When you can place a 3D object in your home on a 3D printer and the printer scans it then copies it, that will be the big event.

    Sure, 3D printers are not particularly adept at making voluminous production runs, but neither was an early home PC CD burner. The impact came from millions on millions of typical average people owning at least one and using it to put content on a CD that they previously would have had to pay a store for a CD with the content already on it. And now they didn't.

    When it gets to a point where its easy for a 3D printer to make copies of things you already own or borrowed off of someone else, then once millions own one...it will indeed be a different world.

    Try putting that cat back in the bag. I imagine it will be something akin to trying to stuff an angry mountain lion into a plastic green garbage bag.
  • Ushers in era of disposable aircraft? Wrong - They've been here for years

    at least any RC aircraft I've flown has been assumed to be "disposable" before I've purchased it...
  • Cheap Electronics...

    you can build a home built drone for about £300ish with a 1 - 2 mile range easy peasy

    now counter in the fact that who ever would be using longer range drones "legitimately" would be buying the 'lectrics in bulk they would be mega cheap.

    having an airframe that is repeatable identically with the CoG already setup etc, would be childs play to clip in motor, esc etc....
  • What is new in this?

    Really don't get all the hype at all!

    I was 3D printing (stereolythography) and soft casting production parts in the 1980's. The technology may indeed have got cheaper, but only if you are making something smaller than half a loaf of bread. More to the point, even with modern printers it takes ages to 3D print something, so is no faster than machining. The benefit is in what you can manufacture in terms of design shape. 3D printing allows a design topography that you can't achieve any other way. (A drone casing seems pretty easy).

    Now, before the Pro-3D printing world leaps on me, I am currently 3D Printing Titanium parts for an Air Expedition to Antarctica. The project includes 3D printed aircraft parts and also prosthetic leg parts for the pilots, see more at: www.fly2pole.com. Drone wise we will be taking a couple Game of Drones, which are great for filming. Here is one of our drones in action: http://youtu.be/Lgj540ImdZY
    John Laity