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Piccolissimo: University of Pennsylvania Uses 3D Printing to Create Smallest Self-Flying Vehicle

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upennlogo2ModLab, the modular robotics laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, recently revealed the world’s smallest self-flying vehicle called Piccolissimo which relies on 3D printed custom frames for extra speed and reduced weight.

In May 2014, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s flagship conference ICRA accepted the University of Pennsylvania’s article entitled “Passive Stability of a Single Actuator Micro Aerial Vehicle.” The paper, authored by Matthew Piccoli and Mark Yim, investigated the possibility of utilizing one single motor to operate a flying vehicle.

3dp1The initial proof-of-concept featured two micro aerial vehicles (MAV) based on a single actuator–a component of a machine that is responsible for moving or controlling a mechanism or system–which established passive stability primarily through wind pressure.

In late October 2016, more than two years since the release of the original paper on single actuator-based MAV, the ModLab released a more sophisticated and efficient updated version of the MAV by the name of “Piccolissimo.”

As stated in the original paper, Piccolissimo only features one motor or actuator to reach passive stability in air. The researchers at the University of Pennsylvania added various stabilizers onto the custom-built body of the MAV, allowing the vehicle to gain momentum in air and generate extra speed.

“The body has stabilizers built into it, which act like another set of propellers. If Piccolissimo travels through the air, the stabilizers that spin into the wind, called the advancing blades, see extra wind and generate extra lift. The stabilizers the move away from the wind see less wind, so they generate less lift,” researchers at the ModLab stated.

Interestingly, both the Mini Piccolissimo and Maneuverable Piccolissimo feature 3D printed bodies and frames to reduce weight and increase efficiency. Because the MAVs are significantly smaller in size compared to other commercially available aerial vehicles, the utilization of 3D printers to create custom frames is a more cost-efficient and robust method.

piccolissimo_headerThe researchers noted that the majority of MAV bodies are printed using a ProJet 6000. However, 3D printing services and marketplaces like Shapeways are used from time to time for convenience, as they explain:

“Most are printed on Penn Engineering’s ProJet 6000, but we have also used commercial services like Shapeways which only cost $7.37 per frame. The body frames have three slots for standard Lithium Polymer batteries, much like what you would find in smart watches. We also include some electronics to control the motor and do the pulsing for steering.”

The ModLab further notes that Piccolissimo spins around 40 to 50 times per second to establish stability in air and maintain control. Since the entire vehicle is operated by a single motor that is connected to various components of the MAV, the ModLab stated that the 3D printing technology has been a vital component in the development of MAVs.

To understand the fundamental physical attributes of these MAVs, it is crucial to acknowledge that the size of both the Mini Piccolissimo and the Maneuverable Piccolissimo is almost identical to a dime. In spite of its size however, the ModLab explains that these vehicles are capable of carrying additional devices such as cameras and sensors.

small_flyer_comparison2-590x538

Size Comparison: ModLab notes that this is a comparison between both versions of Piccolissimo, Robobee, and Mesicopter. All blue circles are the same size and all orange circles are the same size.

For commercial applications, the Piccolissimo may be a better alternative to drones and full size quadcopters, as its small size allows the vehicle to fly without causing any convenience to people or objects around. Discuss in the ModLab forum at 3DPB.com.

[Sources: Original paper, ModLab / Images: University of Pennsylvania, ModLab]

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