3D-printed UAV can go from not existing to flying within 24 hours


April 2, 2014

A front view of the 3d-printed UAV airframe

A front view of the 3d-printed UAV airframe

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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.

Source: Advanced Manufacturing Research Center

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Drones will soon fill the sky and be spying on and possibly even attacking people. The NRA finally has a real reason to bare arms, but they'll have to trade in their rifles for shot guns to blow these things out of the sky. Drones will soon be a bigger nuisance than Canada Geese.


@ Rehab - Why does the NRA have to be sleeveless? Isn't being clueless enough for them?

In general, I wonder if we will look back on the advent of 3D printing as the moment when technology started to take charge of its human masters. If that proves to be the case, let's hope they make a better job of it than we have.

Mel Tisdale

off topic - but that's Stanage edge. I live one mile from there (just over the land in the foreground) :-)


Headline: "3D-printed UAV..." False. Utterly false. Humans cannot yet 3D Print a complete UAV; too complicated by many orders of magnitude. And printing high energy magnets for the motors jams up the nozzles - LOL.

Body: "3D-printed UAV airframe..." Correct.

Printing false and misleading headlines regarding 3D Printing is the latest meme. Everyone is doing it. Thank you for participating. :-)


Mass produce & use for MH330 air search?? Other.

Stephen Russell

@Anonymous756 the motors/batteries etc. don't have to be 3D printed because they are off the shelf parts. I think you have a misunderstanding of what 3D printing is for.

Lets say you have an idea for a new UAV but need to build a prototype. Do you start by getting on the phone with a factory in China to work out the details of how you will create a mold? That's expensive, time consuming, and difficult to do unless you are a company with connections. What if you want to tweak the design? Do you front the cost of an additional mold? What if it has limited production?

That would be expensive but with 3D printing you can directly print a 3D model of plastics cheaply, bolt on your off the shelf components used to power it, and you have an inexpensive prototype completed cheaply in hours. If you make a tweak to the design there is no need to create a new mold either, you make the change and print the revision.

3D printing has more uses than prototyping but you get the point.

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