I guess it was inevitable: 3D printing has met up with drones in a 3D-printed UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). University of Sheffield engineers printed the prototype drone in 24 hours from ABS plastic using Fused Deposition Modeling.
Engineers at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) designed, built, and successfully tested the UAV as a radio-controlled, slope soaring glider. The small wingspan, fixed-wing craft was created on a Stratasys Fortus 900mc FDM printer, according to an article on the AMRC website. The parts snap together and the total drone weighs less than 2 kg (2.2 lb), with a wingspan of 1.5m (4.9 ft).
The AMRC's Design & Prorotyping Group engineers chose FDM over SLA (steolithography) and SLS (selective laser sintering) because of its lower initial investment, lower material cost, and simpler process when printing relatively large components like the drone's airframe. The idea is to enable 3D printing of unmanned, disposable aircraft that could be sent on one-way missions for reconnaissance, search and rescue, or delivery.
Computational fluid dynamics were used to optimize the chosen design for both aerodynamics and manufacturing using FDM. The resulting UAV consists of only nine relatively large, thin-walled parts, which also speeds manufacturing time. (Source: University of Sheffield AMRC)
Earlier versions of the prototype drone required large amounts of support material around its components to prevent their structures from deforming during the build process. But this extra material can increase build time by a lot -- up to an order of magnitude -- because of the need to change print heads after each shift between build and support structures, for every print layer. It also adds considerably to material costs, and reducing costs was a major aim of the project.
The team got around the deformation and support structure problem by optimizing the design for 3D printing. Before, the design would have required 120 hours, not 24, to manufacture. Narrowing options with CAD modeling led to the drone's blended-wing-body design, which improved aerodynamics while also eliminating support material by allowing all of the craft's geometry to remain below critical angles.
Computational fluid dynamics were used to optimize the chosen design for both aerodynamics and manufacturing using FDM, and to assess characteristics like lift, drag, and pitch over a range of angles of incidence. The resulting UAV consists of only nine relatively large, thin-walled parts, which also speeds manufacturing time. These components are two each of wings, elevons, spars, and wing end fences, plus a central spine. The flight test showed that the craft has good stability and an efficient wing design, indicated by low aerodynamic noise at speed.
The engineers are now considering whether nylon as a 3D printing material is feasible, according to a press release. That would increase the UAV's strength by 60% without also increasing its weight. The team plans to add guidance to the UAV via cameras or GPS, which would be controlled by an operator equipped with first person-view goggles, said project leader Garth Nicholson, senior design engineer at the AMRC, in the article. GPS could also be used for autonomous flight. An electric twin ducted fan propulsion system is being built for inclusion in the central spine of the drone. Other ducted fan designs are also being considered, as are control by surface morphing technology and onboard data logging of flight parameters.
I agree, Cabe. Although my tech-loving self thinks this is cool, my I-live-in-the-country-for-peace-and-quiet self is horrified at the prospect of these things showing up in my "back yard" (actually a forest), whether for commercial or private use. I'm also horrified at the possibilities for accidents, and the invasion of privacy. OTOH, the QF-4 drone that crashed in Florida is a much larger UAV, a modified F-4 Phantom fighter plane, which was being tested on a military base.
I foresee the FAA coming out with civilian regulations with the amount of drones hitting US airspace. Just look at the recent near miss over Florida last month with an American Airlines flight. Scary to say the least.
Jim, actually the slightly rough texture would reduce drag by creating a very thin turbulant layer next to the body. And a lot of current 3D printed stuff is very smooth, the process is much better than a while back. Many printed parts need no additional treatments.
William, thanks for your comments. I also was impressed at the amount of optimization done on the design. As we note, the first generation is a prototype that's merely a glider, with no onboard functions except comms for radio control. The next generation will have some of the additional stuff mentioned that will let it do autonomous reconnaissance or search-and-rescue missions, like cameras, GPS, fan propulsion systems and data logging devices.
The most impressive portion of the post is that both CFD and mechanical programs were used to optimize the product, followed by optimization for 3D printing for production. The only flaw that I see is that it does not leave much room for improvement in the second generation.
Thanks for the laugh, Liz; I really enjoy your sense of humor. On the serious side, I enjoy writing about UAV and drone technologies, but I must agree--the idea of making them easy to produce makes me nervous considering their potential negative uses.
It's pretty incredible what 3D printing can produce these days. It seems the sky is literally the limit--or not, as this drone shows. Interesting development, but also a bit scary, too, considering some of the destructive things drones are used for.
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