While we’ve seen how 3D printing has helped advance multiple industries ranging from modern consumer product design and development to medical applications including the process of 3D bioprinting living tissues to be implanted into humans, one area that has been seeing a large amount of development includes the use of 3D printing to design and fabricate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
Unsurprisingly, the trend can be linked to an overall surge of interest in the unmanned vehicles as both government organizations including the military as well as consumers who are looking to document their action sports adventures or other activities have both been purchasing and developing their own systems at increasingly high rates.
But for all of the hand-built options or options that we’ve seen that have been made through the use of traditional manufacturing methods, the use of 3D printing has been showing significant promise for the near future of UAV design and fabrication – particularly in regards to the ability to embed circuitry into a 3D print during the 3D printing process.
Among others who have been dedicating a significant amount of time towards better understanding and improving upon the process of adding electronic components to UAVs during an additive manufacturing process include a team of researchers at the W.M. Keck Center for 3-D Innovation at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).
“Researchers around the world have struggled to create 3-D printed electronics in the last decade,” said Eric MacDonald, Ph.D., an electrical and computer engineer at the school. “But we here at UTEP have made tremendous gains and have invented several advanced 3-D printing technologies enabling 3-D electronics.”
Among other developments that incorporate multiple materials (3D printed plastic and circuitry) that have been created by MacDonald and the rest of his team include a prototype of a black and orange UAV aircraft with a two-and-a-half-foot wingspan.
To create the designs, the engineers first model the hardware and circuitry using a dedicated CAD tool. Once the plastic and circuitry components have been modeled, they are virtually assembled before the plastic components are prepared to be 3D printed. Once the parts are sent to a 3D printer, they are carefully monitored by an engineer who then embeds the circuitry part way through the 3D printing process – which effectively embeds the circuitry into the final structure of the design.
While the process of embedding the circuitry by hand might be considered tedious by some, the near future will likely include 3D printers that have robotic arms that are synced to the 3D printer’s data that will be capable of embedding the circuitry through an automated command – meaning that creating consumer electronics or other electronic devices such as UAVs could be as simple to create as static 3D printed plastic objects are now. Additionally, this opens up the opportunity to create entirely-customized designs that previously wouldn’t have been possible to produce due to the high expense of manufacturing … such as a fully-customized UAV that’s designed and fabricated for a specific task.
“Someone can quickly redesign a UAV to fit a specific mission,” said Efrain Aguilera, an engineer who worked on the project. “If you need a drone that can fly long distances, you can increase the wing size, or if you need something stealthy, you can make the drone smaller.”