3D Printing for Drones and UAVs

Published on April 20, 2017

3D Printing for Drones and UAVs

Blog
  • 3D printing is used at scale to manufacture drones and UAVs
  • Defense contractors, commercial companies and people at home are making 3D printed drones.

3D Printing lets you make short run parts in geometries that other technologies can not. Parts can be made quickly and with lower overall costs. Rather than wait weeks for tooling and have a considerable up front investment per part, parts can be made with low up front costs as well. Less stock, not only in parts themselves but also in tooling, cores and assembly materials need to be kept. Parts can also be made in such a way that they integrate a lot of functionality in them. A fuel tank can be made so it integrates into it a cap, mounting brackets and a nozzle. This reduces the total assembly time, reduces weight and reduces the total number of parts. This again has a positive effect on the overall costs of the craft and its performance. The lower the weight the faster, higher, cheaper and longer drones can fly. 3D printing was initially used as a prototyping technology for military drones and then many manufacturers ended up flying their prototype parts. Military, commercial and hobby drones are one of the largest applications of 3D printing in series production.

3D printed hobby drones

In hobby drones we can see that 3D printing is lowering the barriers to entry to the drone market.  People worldwide are now designing and developing their own drones. Buying off the shelf components they develop their own RC and drone aircrafts from home. We can see an increasing number of these people now look towards adding functionality to these drones. Whereas only a few years ago most would be content to have something that flew now more performance is the target. People wish to add cameras to their drones or turn them into flying camera platforms for DSLR cameras. People are looking if they can use these drones to survey buildings, survey land, take aerial selfies and lift things. We also see true innovation occurring in this market. People at home are now working together to share and repurpose files to make better craft. We also see 3D printed drones being made with new concepts or ideas at their core. Long term gliders that are meant to stay aloft for hours or micro drones that fit in the palm of your hand. Such craft are also being developed by commercial companies and defense contractors. They market them at significantly higher cost however. If you make a novel drone and print it out on your Fused Deposition Modeling machine, then that design can be shared and printed out by others. In this way 3D printing accelerates innovation and spreads ideas and files around the world. For most the development of these craft is also a hobby so their R&D efforts are rewarded only by the fun of having made a thing. This further keeps down the cost of these desktop 3D printed drones. In combination this indicates that some very low cost high performance craft could eventually emerge from the desktop drone market. This could have implications for companies making commercial drones.

3D printed commercial drones

In commercial drones 3D printing is used widely for prototyping. Additionally it is used for customizing drone platforms. DJI and others have base drone kits that they sell through which you can customize the body of the drone with 3D printing. They are in effect trying to become a hardware platform that offers people the building blocks that they need to build custom drones. This will let them stay ahead of the curve and keep a close eye on new developments. Rather than top down having to spot every emerging trend they can sit back and give drone builders and enthusiasts kits and see which of them are successful.

In higher end drones such as professional camera platforms and crop dusters we see 3D printing being used for gimbals, brackets, custom holders for cameras and the like. Small specialized drone builders use the technology to cost effectively offer a wider array of models than they could also. Purchasers of drones such as camera companies or film companies use 3D printing to customize them further. Parts are designed and printed so extra battery packs can be added for a particular camera for example. There is a small but emerging ‘aftermarket’ as well where certain drones have customers for niche aftermarket goods. Some companies are emerging which are engaged in what we would in other industries call “systems integration” where they take a tool and then repurpose or finish it for newer applications. For drones this means that they are taking a standard drone and making it fit for a fire service for example to meet their individual requirements. For these companies 3D printing is also an effective technology.

Military drones

Below you can see an image of a Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAS D, this is also a drone. After dental, medical, prototyping, general parts manufacturing and intermediates, drone manufacturing is probably the largest single application for 3D printing. As much as we would love it to be cute little home made drones that were responsible for this large scale deployment of 3D printing it is actually military drones that the lion’s share of this application.

There was a drone boom where every self respecting military service needed to have drones. Man packable drones, drones for use in buildings, drones for platoons, brigade level drones, long distance spy drones etc. At the same time the Navy, Marines, Air Force and Army all wanted different versions of these craft. Companies wished to develop craft quickly to compete and found themselves with high tooling costs and lots of parts which had to be customized. The answer to this issue for them was to extensively use 3D printing for the prototype and after selection use the part on the final drone. Services emerged such as Digital Harvest, Solid Concepts and Paramount to print out these drones. These direct digital manufacturing companies specialized in series production of end use 3D printed parts. They let many more defense contractors produce series drone parts at scale.

Integrated assemblies, mounts, fuel tanks, wings and airframes were printed out. These parts were improved upon and production was expanded. Because there was little regulatory oversight on drones, if the part worked it was pressed into service. Soon many of the world’s military drones had 3D printed components on them.

Technologies 

For 3D printing drones many different technologies are used. Mainly Fused Deposition Modeling (material extrusion) and Selective Laser Sintering (powder bed fusion) are used. These technologies produce the toughest and most usable parts for this application. Metal 3D printing is also being used at scale for many of these projects. Additionally new technologies such as MarkForged composites 3D printing (image at the top of the page) can be used for drones as well. New 3D printing technologies are also being commercialized by Oak Ridge National Laboratories and others to further enable larger scale drone manufacturing. 3D printing is a key technology for the US military in particular and will see considerable investment over time due to this.

 

New ways of making 

Below you can see an image of a quadcopter 3D printed using Voxel8. This technology lets you 3D print circuits. Further efficiencies can be brought to drone manufacturing to in one step 3D print the electronics and the body of the part. These technologies are not yet ready for series production in this way but they are being commercialized. This would let drone designers radically alter the form factors of drones. Combined with increased solar panel efficiency and better batteries they could lead to far more efficient and perhaps entirely automated drone production. It is easy to appreciate that this would have considerable ramifications on the drone industry and beyond this. Faster, more agile and more efficient drone production would benefit commercial operators but also have considerable strategic implications for militaries around the world. If one particular military became the lowest cost operator to printing out drones close to the battlefield then they would have considerable advantages over others. This is part of the reason, apart from all of the efficiencies, that the US and Chinese governments are investing so much money in 3D printing.

New Ways of Thinking

Below you can see a 3D printed part for a drone wing. With 3D printing you can adjust and completely redesign the internal structure of this wing. This has obvious weight advantages and is being adopted more widely. In the first stage companies want a part 3D printed. This part will be low cost for a unique part but not really high performance. In the second stage the company redesigns the part for 3D printing taking optimal advantage of having a part that is, for example, as strong as the previous one but 40% lighter. Then in the third stage they will redesign their manufacturing and design process for 3D printing. Rather than make one new drone a year they will in a modular way make many drones. Rather than make one factory set up to produce one type of vehicle they will have a more agile production process to quickly adjust and improve vehicles. In the fourth stage they will, with their new found knowledge, start to completely rethink for 3D printing. They will look at a completely different way at manufacturing and design. What is a wing? What can we do to also make it a fuel tank and a flap in one production step? This is where we can see drone 3D printing happening now. From a prototyping technology it is leading to a rethink of what manufacturing and what parts are.