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The drones are coming, and 3D printing is making them cheap and maybe even disposable. Engineers at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom have developed a prototype 1.5-m-wide unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) made of thermoplastic by means of fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology. The UAV has already completed a test flight as a glider, as shown in the video below. The engineers said the polymer craft could form the basis of cheap and potentially disposable UAVs that could be built and deployed in remote situations within as little as 24 hours.

Norbert Sparrow

March 31, 2014

2 Min Read
3D-printed drone sighted over Sheffield (video)

The drones are coming, and 3D printing is making them cheap and maybe even disposable. 

Engineers at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom have developed a prototype 1.5-m-wide unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) made of thermoplastic by means of fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology. The UAV has already completed a test flight as a glider, as shown in the video below. The engineers said the polymer craft could form the basis of cheap and potentially disposable UAVs that could be built and deployed in remote situations within as little as 24 hours.

The project, led by engineers at the university's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), chose FDM over stereolithography and selective laser sintering to build the airframe because of the lower initial investment, material cost, and simplified process, according to a press release posted on the AMRC website.

"By understanding the capability of the FDM process and associated software, we were able to manipulate the design to contain a number of unique features as well as preventing build deformation," says project leader and additive manufacture development engineer Mark Cocking. "All parts required for the airframe can be combined onto a single build within the [Stratasys Fortus 900 FDM machine], taking less than 24 hours with ABS-M30 material. Before design for additive manufacture optimisation, this airframe would take over 120 hours to produce."

The Sheffield UAV comprises nine parts that can be snapped together.

Researchers are now working on developing an electric ducted fan propulsion system to incorporate into the airframe's central spine. They plan to develop the craft for guidance by GPS or camera technology, remotely controlled by an operator wearing goggles.

Materials for each drone, which weigh less than 2 kg, start at approximately $9, reports the Daily Mail. Engineers are currently evaluating the potential of using nylon as a printing material, which would make the UAV 60% stronger with no increase in weight.

Projected manufacturing costs have not been disclosed, but researchers say that they would be substantially lower than current techniques, fueling speculation that 3D-printed drones could one day be used for searches, reconnaissance missions, or delivering merchandise.

Suddenly, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' vision of drones making home deliveries seems a lot closer to reality.

Norbert Sparrow

Norbert Sparrow is Senior Editor at PlasticsToday. Follow him on twitter @norbertcsparrow and Google+.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.

www.linkedin.com/in/norbertsparrow

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