I’m not just a fan of drones, I’m also into the “maker culture.” What is maker culture? According to Wikipedia, the maker culture can be defined as:
The maker culture is a contemporary culture or subculture representing a technology-based extension of DIY culture. Typical interests enjoyed by the maker culture include engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and traditional arts and crafts. The subculture stresses a cut-and-paste approach to standardized hobbyist technologies, and encourages cookbook re-use of designs published on websites and maker-oriented publications. There is a strong focus on using and learning practical skills and applying them to reference designs.
Combining drones with the maker culture, and interesting things start to happen. People have started 3D printing their DIY drones. It’s easy to get into 3D printing drones (if you have access to a 3D printer) thanks to websites like MakerBot’s Thingiverse, which provides creative common licensed, 3D models for just about everything. Searching Thingiverse for the word drone and they already have 583 results at the time of this posting. Keep in mind, not all the 3D models are complete drones, you can find complete drones but you can also find a 3D printable Parrot AR Drone mount for a GoPro Hero.
Researching 3D printing drones, I ran into an interesting, albeit a bit old, article. Last year, Jordan Golson wrote a piece for Wired magazine about a military grade drone that you could easily 3D print. The drone, designed by a research team at the University of Virginia, was created for the Department of Defense. The project is led by David Sheffler, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and 20-year veteran of the aerospace industry.
In the works for three years, the aircraft, no bigger than a remote-controlled plane, can carry a 1.5-pound payload. If it crashes or needs a design tweak for a new mission, another one can be printed out in a little more than a day, for just $2,500. It’s made with off-the-shelf parts and has an Android phone for a brain.
“We weren’t sure you could make anything lightweight and strong enough to fly,” says David Sheffler, who led the project. Sheffler is a former engineer for Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce who now teaches at the university. After he created a 3-D printed jet engine in one of his classes, the MITRE Corporation, a DoD contractor, asked him to create a 3-D printed UAV that could be easily modified and built with readily available parts.
3D printing a drone has a few problems because according to Sheffler, “You’re printing out of a material that’s really not well-suited to making an airplane.” To make matters worse, the way 3D printers build things up in layers creates structural weaknesses in 3D printed aircraft.
To account for those downsides, Sheffler’s team reworked the design. They settled on a “flying wing” design, in which the whole aircraft is basically one big wing, and called it the Razor. The latest (third) prototype is made of nine printed parts that click together like LEGO. The center of the plane is all one piece, with a removable hatch that offers access the inner cargo bay. All of the electronics live in there, including a Google Nexus 5 smartphone running a custom-designed avionics app that controls the plane, and an RC-plane autopilot that manages the control surfaces with input from the phone. The Razor’s wing structure is one piece, with an aileron, winglets, and mount for the small jet engine that clip on.
The aircraft, with a four-foot wingspan, weighs just 1.8 pounds. Loaded with all the electronics gear, it comes in at just under 6 pounds. That lets it fly at 40 mph for as long as 45 minutes, though the team’s working to get that up to an hour. An earlier prototype could top 100 mph, and the team believes the plane could hit 120 mph, at the cost of a very quickly drained battery.
It can carry 1.5 pounds, so attaching a camera to it would be no problem.
The Razor can be directly controlled from up to a mile away, as well as use GPS waypoints to fly autonomously. Leveraging a Nexus smartphone’s 4G LTE acting as the drones control system provides a way to send commands from much farther away. This biggest limitation here is the FAA.
Why would you want to 3D print a military grade drone?
Here’s where the 3-D printing really comes in handy: The design can be modified—and reprinted—easily, to be bigger or smaller, carry a sensor or a camera, or fly slower or faster. The plane can be made in 31 hours, with materials that cost $800. Electronics (like the tablet-based ground station) push the price to about $2,500. That’s so cheap, it’s effectively disposable, especially since you can make another one anywhere you can put a 3-D printer. If one version is flawed or destroyed, you can just crank out another.
This project is really pushing the limits new technologies, and as these technologies improve, the Razor will improve as well. I think this is a great example of what 3D printing can do.