Are 3D printed UAVs really the future?

Collage of 3d printed unmanned aircraft UAVs

“It’s going to usher in a new era of localized, distributed manufacturing that is actually based on digital fabrication.”  – Avi Reichental, former CEO & President of 3D Systems Corporation, speaking on 3D printing technology while delivering his TED Talk ‘What’s next in 3D printing?

While putting together the ‘I was wrong about 3D Printed Drones’ video with Gary Mortimer, I was inspired both by 3D Lab Print’s way of getting high-quality fixed-wing aircraft designs out to the world for people to 3D print at home, as well as by some of Gary’s comments. Particularly his comments about a new dynamic between manufacturer and end-user emerging once someone makes that “hop and a skip” to designing drones instead of pure RC aircraft. This got me thinking about a few questions with respect to the commercial drone market, with the first and main question being, are hyper-locally manufactured 3D printed UAVs really the future?

As I started delving deeper into this question, several others started popping up. Does 3D printing unmanned aerial vehicles locally really solve any problems in the commercial or hobby drone space? What kind of designer to end-user business models could arise? What technological advances still need to come about before this becomes an everyday thing? In this article, I have attempted to answer some of these questions. I have also tried to find as many of the 3D printed projects that are out there, or have been out there in the past, and condense them into this piece a bit further down the page.

A quick overview of 3D printing

Three-dimensional printing, otherwise known as additive layer manufacturing or just additive manufacturing, is the process of turning a digital file into a solid three-dimensional object. One first designs a three-dimensional model in CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software, this 3D model is then automatically digitally sliced into thousands of layers and sent to the 3D printer. The 3D printer then builds these layers on top of each other, one layer at a time, with molten (or cured) material such as ABS plastic (Lego plastic), Nylon, even some metals. The list of materials one can print with is growing daily.

What is out there?

Does locally 3D printing unmanned aerial vehicles really solve any problems in the commercial or hobby drone spaces?

This type of process will allow UAV designers (and RC aircraft designers for that matter), who have the talent for aircraft design, but don’t necessarily have the capital, connections or know-how to set up the manufacturing and shipping part of the equation, to still be able to create a business out of their talent. Imagine not having to worry about decisions like sourcing raw materials, dealing with the logistics of sourcing motors or electronics, whether or not to move manufacturing to China (scaling issues almost fall away completely). Not having to worry about how many units to manufacture and store while the demand ebbs up and down over time is also something that mostly falls away.

The prospective UAV designer would also not have to worry about a large labour force, subcontractor related issues or cross-border import tax issues or units lost or damaged in shipping. Recalls, what are those? Can your say Karma? Simply emailing a new design free of charge to the end-user if a big flaw is discovered is all that it would take, no logistical mess. The list goes on.

These designers could instead spend their time designing, prototyping, marketing, selling and continuously improving their aircraft designs or produce entirely new ones, without the headaches that come with of large scale production.

Another problem that is solved by distributed manufacturing such as this is that bringing out subsequent versions or improvements of a design becomes exponentially quicker. Designers (formerly manufacturers) could react very quickly to correct any design flaws based on feedback from end-users. It won’t cost the designer or the end-user an arm and a leg to bring out normal improvements to a particular UAV, either. A few hours of printing, and assembly time combined with a few $ worth of printing filament and a bit of electricity is all it would cost the end-user to get the latest version of the drone airborne.

For the price of a single high-end off-the-shelf unit, a commercial drone operator could print and assemble multiple units. This could allow for multiple missions simultaneously at a lower cost. Operators would also have lower redundancy costs. Costly spares and airframes as backup, both shipping time- and money-wise, would also be a problem of the past. Having to wait for an expensive spare from the manufacturer could see an operator possibly missing out on revenue, or lose an existing client / booked job. Instead, the operator could have multiple sets of spare wings and other fuselage parts ready in the truck or even have a couple of complete airframes standing by as a backup. If something or everything should break, even without keeping any already printed spares on hand, only a few hours of printing would see the UAV airborne again.

Let’s say an operator offers more than one type of mission capability to their clients, i.e. using different sensors for different jobs. These sensors are likely of different shapes, sizes, and weights. Normally, the operator would either have to integrate each sensor into its own airframe (even if a particular sensor isn’t used often), or have to have a hot-swappable space or mounting contraption. This is not always as easy as it sounds because one space or mount would have to accommodate different sizes, connectors, weights etc. Bringing on board a newly purchased sensor could take more time and hassle than needed to integrate. Also, it would perhaps not be as cleanly integrated as it could be if the payload module is custom designed and printed for that sensor.

With a 3D printed aircraft, the designer could design in some modularity for the payload. Along with the main aircraft design itself, the designer could provide multiple payload module designs that are suited to the most popular sensors out there (GoPro, FLIR etc.). The end-user would then only have to print the payload module for their particular sensor. If the operator has a sensor not covered by one of the provided payload modules print files, they could have a custom one designed by the original designer of the aircraft or by a third party or by themselves. All the original design would have to have is a standard way for the various payload modules to attach to the airframe using printed grooves or interlocking shapes or somesuch.

This way of distributed manufacturing is of course not limited to the small business. Existing larger corporations such as Parrot, Sensefly, DJI and others, could also potentially benefit from this way of doing things. The same manufacturing, storing, shipping and benefits would apply. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the existing larger companies adding 3D printed design divisions that offer an aircraft model separate from their main products in the coming years. With the ever growing and improving 3D printing technology, perhaps, in the long run, these companies would not have much of a choice but to offer these kinds of 3D printable designs along with their traditionally manufactured products?

What regulatory implications could there be for commercial UAS operators using these locally printed UAVs?

I asked Gary to expand on what he mentioned about regulators having something to think about when it comes to small 3D printed unmanned aircraft being used commercially:

“3D printed aircraft are in many ways better than conventional construction because they are printed very nearly identical every time. Something built with balsa and glue will vary. So from a certification point of view it should be easier. Below 5kg though I think old school aviation regulators will be forced to get out of the way. Nobody currently certifies a 1.2kg DJI Phantom.”

We will see how it all plays out over the coming years, and sUAS News will definitely keep an eye on this aspect.

What technological and/or design advances still need to come about before this becomes a widespread practice?

There is still quite a bit of a learning curve when it comes to the setup and use of a 3D printer, although this aspect seems to be becoming less of a factor as days go by. The learning curve angle is reducing as more user-friendly, and better quality consumer 3D printers appear on the market.

Most home printers do not have industrial size print beds, therefore parts such as wings and the fuselage need to be printed in sections. Printable UAV designs will likely have to incorporate less glue in favour of more interlocking parts or a similar solution to further increase ease of assembly for the end-user. I realize that this is much easier said than done, but at the same time I suspect that some talented designer combined with improving printer technology will solve this in the near future.

Every other day there seems to be a new advance in printing materials, as it stands the type of materials available to print UAVs with are already sufficient if used correctly. There are the traditional ones such as PLA, ABS, Nylon and PET/PETG. Each of these have their respective pros and cons. See more info on the different materials at the end of the article.

There are a lot of trade-offs between weight, strength, heat and impact resistance. This has also been a factor keeping many away from printing their own aircraft. The good news is that, again, printing technology is not standing still. There are new types of materials that, when used in conjunction with some of the traditional materials, could see a good balance between weight, strength, and flexibility in a remotely piloted aircraft. One of these new materials is thermo-plastic polyurethane (TPU). It’s tough but flexible and could withstand some of the higher aerodynamic and impact stresses involved in certain parts of an airframe while flying and landing or crashing for that matter.

A new dynamic between designers/manufacturers and the end-users/operators

In closing, the scope of possibilities for UAV designers using this type of distributed manufacturing model is quite large. Designers could come up with packages alongside the actual aircraft 3D file purchase where an end-user could request a design modification suited to their particular operation. Think design-as-a-service, UAV designers could include multiple future custom modifications as part of the base price or they could charge for each design modification. The designer would learn more and more from such a feedback loop and could incorporate some of these custom modifications and improvement into future designs and variations of a model.

Of course, 3D printed aircraft are not a be all and end all solution for the UAS market as a whole (yet), and I am perhaps a little too optimistic on timing but I cannot help but notice the benefits of this going forward. Bringing out hidden design talent and reducing overall costs by removing a large chunk of the capital intensive production cycle as well as improving mission flexibility for commercial operators must surely be a good thing?

Traditional 3D Printing Materials

PLA (PolyLactic Acid, is a biopolymer or biodegradable plastic)

Pros: easy to work with, no odor, cheap and widely available
Cons: not ultra-violet (UV) or heat-resistant

ABS (Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene, is an oil-based plastic, Lego is made of this plastic)

Pros: tough and stable, lightweight, better temperature resistance, cheap and widely available
Cons: A heated print bed is required for optimal results, gives off toxic fumes during the printing process so this is something to consider

PLA and ABS-like filaments with mixture of carbon fiber or fiberglass

Pros: Rigid and stable
Cons: expensive, require a heated print bed, perhaps a bit too brittle for crashes, despite the fiber these are lightweight

Nylon

Pros: High strength, high-temperature resistance, lightweight
Cons: Tricky to print with

PET / PETG (Polyethylene terephthalate, is a thermoplastic polymer resin)

Pros: shockproof and stable
Cons: Requires a heated print bed, relatively expensive, quite heavy