The allure of 3D printed drones is very strong. A large number of projects have been completed recently all over the world which build on the excitement of this combination of technologies. While printing the frame, whether from metal or plastic, has becomes a fairly routine undertaking, the dream of 3D printing the embedded electronics and motors are now the subject of a great deal of attention and excitement. Electrical and Computer Engineer at the University of Texas El Paso, Eric MacDonald explained:
“Researchers around the world have struggled to create 3D printed electronics in the last decade. But we here at UTEP have made tremendous gains and have invented several advanced 3D printing technologies enabling 3D electronics.”
This is no one off effort. UTEP is home to the world famous W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation where a number of innovative 3D printing projects have been making waves in the 3D print world. MacDonald serves as the co-director of the center and has been involved in spearheading the efforts to create UAV’s where the electronics also are 3D printed.
Earlier this year, they introduced a an aircraft with a wingspan of 2 1/2′ that incorporates multiple materials and that was created using an ‘all-in-one’ 3D printing process. While not all of the bugs have been worked out yet, it is still a promising step in the right direction. Thomas Hiromoto explained why working with UTEP is important to his company, Lockheed Martin:
“The thing that UTEP is famous for is its ability to print multifunctional, multi-material structures. Creating the mechanics and electronics of a structure in one manual process limits the amount of labor involved and lowers the part count. Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, allows flexibility and lets us react quicker to new needs.”
The printing of the black and orange UAV was the result of a design project by an undergraduate student Efrain Aguilera who went on to graduate with a BS in Engineering in May. As the layers were printed by the machine, when it came time to embed the electronics, Aguilera would pause the machine to embed them by hand. The hope is that soon a robotic arm would be able to replace the human hand in this process. Aguilera described the benefits of using 3D printing in the process of creating these types of machines:
“Someone can quickly redesign a UAV to fit a specific mission. 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. While I may be using my hands now, eventually everything will be printed at the push of a button and come out fully functional.”
The printing and embedding process takes just hours, while traditional means of manufacturing the same type of drone would take weeks to outsource various components and tasks and to bring the whole project together. It’s more than just a pipe dream. The university already holds several patents for 3D printing processes that are capable of producing embedded electronics ready for final projects. We’re not too far from being able to create these types of embedded, push button printing projects quickly and easily. And then we’ll watch for the next innovation.