Because 3D printing allows one-off items to be created quickly and cheaply, it should come as no surprise that the technology has already been used to produce unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Engineers at the University of Sheffield's Advanced Manufacturing Research Center (AMRC), however, have taken things a step farther. They've made a 3D-printed UAV airframe that's designed to minimize the amount of material needed in its construction, and that can be printed and in the air within a single day.
Created by the center's Design and Prototyping Group, the blended-wing UAV was made from ABS plastic using a Stratasys Fortus 900mc FDM (fused deposition modeling) machine. Other groups' previous efforts have instead used more costly Ultem resin as the construction material.
The FDM additive manufacturing process, also known as fused filament fabrication, is what most of us think of when we think of 3D printing – molten material is deposited via a nozzle in successive layers, to build up the desired object. The team chose this method over others, due to "its lower initial investment, material cost and simplified process."
One thing that can drive up the cost of FDM-built UAVs, however, is the fact that support material must be added around the components, to keep them from deforming as they're being printed. The use of that material (which is removed once the item has been printed) adds to UAV's total material costs, plus it drastically increases the build time.
To get around that problem, the AMRC UAV was designed in such a way that all of its components could be FDM-built without the need for support material. As a result, all of the airframe's nine components could be created in a single build, that took less than 24 hours. According to team member Mark Cocking, "Before design for additive manufacture optimization, this airframe would take over 120 hours to produce."
The airframe can be disassembled by hand into two main aerofoils, making it easier to transport. When put together, it has a wingspan of 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) and a weight of less than 2 kg (4.4 lb) – that's not counting the motor and electronics, which would have to be added by the user.
The engineers are now planning a second version, that will have an increased wing span, flight time, speed and payload capacity, among other features. "At the moment the plan is to use as much additive manufacturing technology as possible," Cocking told us. "No other UAV of a similar size and capability out there, as far as we know, uses a 100 percent FDM process to this level at this speed of deployment."
You can see the gliding maiden flight of the existing model, in the video below.