3D Printed Drones Fly into the Future


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Over the past several years, drone usage dramatically increased. In 2016, global unit sales grew 60% to 2.2 million and revenue increased 36% to $4.5 billion. In the United States alone, American consumers bought 2.4 million hobbyist drones compared to 1.1 million in 2015. This year, revenue is expected to increase $6 billion while units should grow to 3 million. This constitutes 39% revenue growth and 34% unit growth from 2016 to 2017, according to a study conducted by the research firm Gartner Inc.

Engineers, designers, and other individuals engaging in current research and development efforts to 3D print drones are now eligible for R&D federal and state tax credits.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13% of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent.  On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

The Benefits of 3D Printed Drones

Imagine being able to build a drone on the whim and customize it to your own specifications, thus making it more affordable and accessible than ever before. This becomes a reality with today’s 3D printing capabilities. Aside from the apparent benefit of creating custom drones, 3D printing offers easy upgradation opportunities. In other words, it is easier to make modifications to a 3D design, then print and test it until the desired variation is achieved. In other ways, now a user can replace broken or malfunctioning parts on an existing drone with 3D printed ones. So far, several components can be 3D printed including the frame, landing gear, propellers, camera mount, antenna holder, and protective equipment. Another advantage of 3D printing results from building drone parts in new lightweight materials. A drone will perform better and fly longer when it is lighter. It also has better battery life and responsiveness to commands in-flight when it is lighter and weight is evenly distributed. The versatility of materials used for 3D printing translates into higher performance features in the drones.

3D Printing Revolutionizes Military-Grade Drones

Military branches are exploring ways to make cheaper, lighter, and more effective drones. A Marine Corp named Rhet McNeal created Scout, a drone composed of 3D printed components. This drone only costs $600 to build in comparison to a traditional one that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since it is 3D printed, should the drone receive any damage, the parts can be easily printed and replaced within hours. On the other hand, a standard-issue drone would require weeks, sometimes months, to get a replacement through the Marine Corps’ supply line. Scout is now in the hands of Mitre Corp., a USMC drone supplier, to undergo certification testing. Prior to Scout, Mitre Corp. experimented with a 3D printed drone called Nibbler. In the next several weeks, the USMC is expected to bring Nibbler into the combat zone to supply troops with required resources. At the same time, they are investigating building 3D printed surveillance drones.

The University of Virginia created a 3D printed UAV drone for the Department of Defense that can be printed in less than a day at $2,500, including electronics development. The body of the drone only costs $800. It is known as the Razor since it appears like one long wing. Weighing in at 6 pounds with all the equipment, the Razor can fly at 40 mph for up to 45 minutes. Its features and capabilities are not compromised by the fact that it is 3D printed; after all, it has all the same functions as a traditional drone with GPS waypoints for navigation, mile-distance control, camera hoisting, and phone linking capabilities that extend the distance it can be controlled within. The greatest advantage of this being 3D printed is that it can be modified and reprinted on the whim. It is fully customizable as it can be made smaller or bigger, geared to carry a sensor instead of a camera, or fly slower or faster.

Companies Creating 3D Printed Drones

Blue Robotics Inc. is based in Southern California and making significant waves in marine robotics. It employs 3D printing in the prototyping and manufacturing phases for its line of submarine drones. In so doing, they can test the product quicker, not order parts in bulk, and offer drones that are unique and fully operational no matter the water conditions (pressure and salt water). Blue Robotics uses Sculpteo, a French company specializing in 3D printing services on the cloud, to prototype, test, and iterate the development process as well as create fully-functioning parts. The reason their drones are successful is because the motor and propeller are designed in such a way, via CAD software, to let water pass through both parts without repercussions.

Soleon is an Italian drone company advancing its efforts in 3D printing drones. Because it deals with diverse projects, including aerial photography and thermal mapping, designs ought to be flexible and quick for upgrades. Soleon uses Materialise to meet customer needs, shorten lead times, and reduce drone weight. Unlike other companies, Soleon uses Laser Sintering to print with polyamide and polyamide filled with glass particles. This makes drone bodies and parts highly complex but fully functional, durable, and more lightweight. One of their 3D printed drones is called SoleonAgro, which is intended for agricultural pest control.

Aerialtronics is a Dutch company producing commercial drones. Because of its 3D printing capabilities, drones can be fully customized to meet the needs of individual customers. Some drones are used in livestock monitoring, infrastructure inspection, and creative filming. It was estimated that the company’s research and development costs were diminished by 50% from the use of 3D printing. 3D printing is used to create different-sized sensor equipment, GPS systems, and boxes that accommodate for cables and other electronic components. Aerialtronics uses Stratasys 3D printing technology to build the drones. On a broader scale, streamlining and employing this more cost-effective process permits small companies like Aerialtronics to become a strong contender in the international drone market.

Saving Lives with 3D Printed Drones

One Japanese team 3D printed a disaster response drone to deliver humanitarian aid in adverse scenarios. In situations where afflicted people require life-saving supplies, drones can make the deliveries when humans cannot. The team explains that drones are often not used in these situations because they do not have safety features or exact weight requirements that permit them to hover or deliver the necessary supplies. This doesn’t help the known fact that drones are expensive to build and purchase in the first place. However, the team uses generative design software to create lattice geometries that reduce weight. 3D printing makes it possible to build lighter, evenly distributed weight drones and replacement parts on the whim, regardless of the challenging situation.

Drones that 3D Print in the Face of Disasters

Imperial College London’s Dr. Mirko Kovac created the first drone 3D printer that ought to crudely 3D print material onto waste to make it transportable. Its intended use is for 3D printing emergency shelters in regions inflicted by natural disasters. Such would be aerial construction robots that have 3D printing technology attached to them. As of now Kovac explains,

“Drones would fly to the emergency site and just observe what is happening. Once the site has been identified, and where shelters would be needed, then we could create the virtual model on the computer offsite.”

After modeling is accomplished offsite, the drones return to the locations and conduct the necessary 3D printing. Most often, natural disasters occur in areas that are already challenging to access. When a disaster strikes, construction teams face even greater difficulty to get there, map out and design temporary constructs to house survivors, and then build them. It is believed these drones can be built off the Building Information Management System (BIM) in scouting drones, but the true challenge will come in creating the best 3D printer mounts. Kovac anticipates these drones to also be employed in constructing tall buildings.

 Flying into the Future

As 3D printing continues to grow in its application to different industries, it is to no surprise that organizations and individuals are 3D printing drones for a variety of uses. Not only are these more lightweight, cheaper, and customizable, the drones are also applicable to the military, agriculture, service industries, hobbyists, and disaster relief scenarios. There is no doubt that 3D printed drones will continue to grow into even more useful applications that simplify our lives and meet our everyday needs. Now, companies and engineers performing 3D printing of drones are eligible for R&D state and federal tax credits.

Charles Goulding and Chloe Margulis of R+D Tax Savers discuss 3D printed drones.

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