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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and 3D printing

Historically, humankind always had the dream to fly and master the skies to fulfill their own interests. Since ancient times researchers and entrepreneurs tried to find ways to accomplish this incredible task  Research interest in this area can be linked to Da Vinci itself, who wrote more than 35000 words and 500 sketches on mechanical flying devices, including a document called Codex on the Flight of Birds. From those times and until now, aeronautics has evolved significantly. The evolution of this industry has led to the creation of aerial vehicles that can be used without a human pilot onboard. These types of aerial vehicles are called Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), and their usefulness can vary from agricultural to military applications. But evolution has not stopped yet, and nowadays 3D printing is being used on the creation of UAV whether to improve the efficiency of the design with complex forms or to ease the manufacturing process making it more accessible for the people. Let’s review deeper how 3D printing is being used in the development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

   There is no surprise that the first uses of UAVs were related to military applications, specifically for attack and exploration missions, avoiding the exposure of their human personnel. Also, this technology has found to be useful in civilian life such as Amazon’s plan to deliver packages using drones. Due to the interest of public, private and military sectors, 3D printers and UAV researches have joined to take advantage of the Additive Manufacturing process to improve UAV designs. This statement leads to a question How is 3D printing being used in the UAV design?   

What are the challenges being addressed in the UAV with 3D printing?

 The weight of the prototypes. 

   In any aerial vehicle —whether it is manned or not—  weight is an issue to address. More weight is related to more energy consumption in order to keep the vehicle flying. Weight also adds difficulties in the perform of hard maneuvers with an aerial vehicle. Particularly for UAV, this problem is no different, and also certain applications of this type of vehicle require designs light in weight. One approach to face the weight challenge taken by researchers in the design of structures with inner complex geometries. Structures that were completely solid can now be part-solid and part-empty, reducing the weight and consequently improving the design. Traditional manufacturing processes in the past would not allow creating these complex structures such as lattice designs and the best solutions that could be achieved were normally too time expensive, such as cutting holes after the parts were already made. 

   But not everything bright and shiny is gold. 3D printers allow us to build inner complex structures to reduce weight, but these new structures have to be studied to understand how mechanical properties behave with the new designs. When a once solid piece is now made part-empty, structure integrity becomes a challenge, and geometry will play a role in it. The best example of this statement is the research conducted by some experts from Asia. They studied the mechanical behavior of the material at compression of three different 3D printed geometries named “Lattice Structures”. The results from the study show different behaviors for each case in the compression Strain. For an engineer or a designer, this means that proposing a new design should be tested prior to approving it, if not, weight challenge could be solved but unexpected deformation or other types of failures might appear.   

Newer and faster ways to improve aerodynamics.

 Since complex geometries can be achieved by using 3D printing technology, researchers and enthusiasts might try to create complex shapes that could improve the aerodynamics of the UAV. The “natural” path could be just improving the known airfoils shape for the wing section or creating better and complex flow channels to canalize the flow in the rotors’ section of the UAV. But some people tried to go further to improve UAV designs and have found themselves inspired by nature. Cornell University Researchers have 3D printed an Ornithopter, or in other terms, a flapping wing insect-like UAV. The design built and studied by these researchers consisted of a less than 4 grams UAV with four-wing and managed to sustain 85 seconds of stable fly. Thanks to 3D printing technology not only this type of flapping-wing designs can be built, but also can be done fast allowing to test the amount of wings designs that creativity and time allow to achieve.

Final Words

   As we reviewed, 3D printing technology has evolved so far to allow it’s application even in high precision industries such as aeronautics. Nowadays the interest in UAV and 3D printing is so big that student competitions are hosted by renowned organizations such as the ASME E-fest. The IAM3D Challenge is an ASME Competition that will be hosted in E-fest of 2020, and the challenge of this event consists of moving a Cargo with an UAV using 3D printing technology to address the competition’s requirements. As for any high precision application, a great and reliable 3D modeling software is necessary to guarantee the work quality. Solidface is a collaborative cloud-based software that helps you reach the quality your 3D printing design requires and deserves. 

   Today’s tasks, goals, and world requirements in any industry are getting more precise and detailed. The level of the goals requires complexes design to achieve the solution of any problem, but yet with simpler ways of manufacturing. Aeronautics industry is not an exemption in this trend, UAV can now be 3D printed and this sets the limits of the design quality only in the creativity of the designer. Of course, newer challenges will arise with this new way of manufacturing, but the future is promissory as shown in this article, since newer solutions will also arise to face these challenges. We’ll only have to wait until the not so far in the future to see it, and of course, also being part of it.


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