New applications for 3D printing continue to make headlines across mainstream media. In the world of UAVs, the incorporation of 3D printing technology may prove to be a match made in the drone-filled heavens with tech gurus predicting ever-decreasing costs and ever-expanding capabilities.
The idea of disposable, 3D printed drones has already garnered mass enthusiasm in military applications. In a recent paper, defense strategist Ben FitzGerald envisions a future in which the military could build literal armies of customized drones from 3D-printed parts by robots. (For a more literal vision of what this future would look like see Iron Man 2, the entire Terminator franchise, and the upcoming Top Gun 2)
Engineers with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield have developed a 3D-printed drone that can be built and deployed in as little as 24 hours. According to an additional report at ZDnet, “the low cost of printing such 3D aircraft could see them used for one-way flights for search, reconnaissance or even deliveries.”
AMRC researchers pointed out that, due to their low cost and ease of construction, their drones could have been used to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
“With the recent aircraft that’s been lost at sea, if you had a fleet of these you could send them out [looking for the aircraft or debris] within 24 hours,” AMRC researcher Mark Cocking told 3dPrint.com.
3D-printed drones are also winning the hearts and minds of DIY hobbyists. Chris Anderson, former Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine, chronicles the growth of 3D products, including drones, on his website and blog DIY Drones. The site features several examples of 3D printed drones, including a qudracopter made of 3D printed parts. Others innovators, like Joshua Allen Johnson, are providing open source solutions to drone parts manufacturing.
3D printing may not be scaled for mass production, but Anderson believes that perceived weakness is actually a strength.
“Although 3D printing couldn’t [yet] reach the same production capacity as traditional manufacturing, I think 3D printers give every ordinary people the ability to create,” he told 3der.org last summer.
CNBC reported recently that UK-based Extreme Fliers has “unveiled a program … that would let its customers 3-D print accessories for its drones.” The company already sells toy drones for as low as $99.
“With the new program, Extreme Fliers’ customers can either order the drone accessories from the company or order the design and make the parts with their own 3D printer,” the report reads. “Instead of buying a new product every year, consumers can continually upgrade their toys with customizable parts whenever they like.”
While hobbyists may salivate over the potential customization, Extreme Fliers founder Vernon Kerswell predicts the innovation won’t fly with competing toy companies.
“Every toy company that sees our new program is going to go, ‘Oh my God, we need a 3-D printing program,'” he told CNBC. “They are scared of us.”
Another example of creative democracy created by the intersection of 3D and UAV can be found at Columbia University where student Ang Cui is publishing a Tumblr blog dedicated to teaching enthusiasts how to assemble drones using 3D printing technology.
In the case if Cui’s homebrewed drone, the joy is in the creation process and not in any monetary savings. A report in the Daily Dot points out: “If you have access to a 3-D printer, building [Gui’s] drone would cost you about $500, or roughly the same price as one that doesn’t require so much tedious tinkering.”
In the end, 3D-printed drones and drone parts may or may not revolutionize the drone industry but UAV operators can at least expect a drop in parts pricing and perhaps the ability to get more creative in customizing their existing drones.
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
Beginning his career as a journalist in 1996, Jason has since written and edited thousands of engaging news articles, blog posts, press releases and online content.
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