Personal and unmanned mobility is rapidly changing as drones bring us closer and closer to humanity’s long-standing vision of flying cars. As anticipated as early as in 2017, AM technologies are ideal for drone manufacturing. More and more real cases are showing how drone 3D printing is now increasingly able to provide mass production capabilities.
Amolak Badesha, CEO of Orbital Composites, a specialist in large-scale composites additive manufacturing, once pointed out to 3dpbm that this new generation of mobility products will not be able to exist without composites enabling the production of extremely light parts. And mass manufacturing with composite materials cannot truly exist without 3D printing.
The same is true for more short-term products, such as unmanned drones for consumer and commercial use, both in the sky and under the sea: drone 3D printing for mass production is coming.
On the BRINC of success
The latest case to emerge is that of emergency drone manufacturer BRINC. The US startup recently turned to Markforged Print farms to produce composite end-use parts. Its LEMUR S drone is basically a flying phone and flying camera, giving first responders intelligence to make better decisions and keep the public safe. The company already raised over $25 million through its idea of developing ultra-durable easily replaceable drones to conduct operations that would put human emergency workers at risk. The LEMUR S drone can break windows using a tungsten carbide extension, it can open doors, see in the dark and drop to the ground to just flip over to take off again. As such, it needed to be more durable and lightweight. The ability to affordably 3D print parts using carbon fiber composites on Markforged systems proved ideal (as can be seen in the photos, almost every part of the drone is 3D printed).
Composites AM for drone mass production*
Skydio was among the first to publicly implement a type of composites additive manufacturing technology for drone mass production. For this, the American drone manufacturer partnered with Arris, first to redefine airframe design leveraging Arris’ additive molding process, Arris’carbon fiber manufacturing technology, for the Skydio X2 drone. The collaboration then resulted in the first-of-its-kind production use of Arris’s technology in the UAV industry, further extending Skydio’s technology leadership and enabling advantages such as replacing a 17 part assembly with a single, multi-functional structure, with parts as stiff as titanium at a fraction of the weight, enabling the Skydio X2 to increase range, and speed. All with scalable US-based manufacturing and innovation to bring peak aerospace performance at a lower cost.
“We are excited about the value that our partnership with Arris will bring to our customers. At Skydio, we pursue cutting-edge innovation across all facets of drone technology. The unique properties of Arris’s Additive Molding carbon fiber allow us to optimize the strength, weight, and radio signal transparency of the Skydio X2 airframe to deliver a highly reliable solution that meets the needs of demanding enterprise, public safety and defense use cases” said Adam Bry, Skydio’s CEO.
Digital Aerolus’ local production
US-based Digital Aerolus needed to manufacture next-generation confined-space drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and a new ground control unit (GCU). For drone 3D printing they turned to AM service provider Fast Radius, as a long-term production partner dedicated to making more efficient products and finding innovative new solutions while still meeting their aggressive schedule.
Searching for an on-demand manufacturer to make two parts, the company and came away with a long-term strategic partnership for the ongoing production of more than 100 components. At first, the company needed two 3D printed parts for the Aertos 120, a drone that operates in confined spaces — like inside pipes, nuclear reactors, chimneys, or mines. Fast Radius introduced Digital Aerolus to HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology and manufactured parts that exceeded Digital Aerolus’ performance expectations while meeting their timeline and budget.
Pleased with their first engagement, Digital Aerolus approached Fast Radius to produce 50 functional prototypes of a ground control unit (GCU) for their new family of autonomous industrial platforms, including the flagship Aertos 130IR. Fast Radius helped Digital Aerolus find the right technology for each part and adjusted designs for manufacturability.
As a multi-process manufacturing partner, Fast Radius also handled production for almost every mechanical component in the GCU, managing manufacturing across cast urethane, CNC machining, the Carbon Digital Light Synthesis (Carbon DLS™) process, and HP Multi Jet Fusion in conjunction with a variety of texturing and graphics processes. Also, Fast Radius provides injection molding services since Digital Aerolus has moved the GCU into volume production.
After working together to find innovative solutions for many parts on the Aertos 130IR, the partnership between Fast Radius and Digital Aerolus is expanding to include newer platform models. Fast Radius has become a one-stop shop for Digital Aerolus, helping them optimize parts for multiple processes and scale products from prototyping to production.
We make the most advanced drones in the world, with hundreds of computer processing elements and dozens of sensors —all enabled by cutting-edge AI, control systems, and software,” commented Jeff Alholm, CEO and Co-founder of Digital Aeolus. “Our customers expect extraordinary performance, and we expect the same from our partners. Fast Radius consistently delivers the precision, proactive solutions, rapid results, and professionalism we need to keep manufacturing exceptional products.”
Drones manufacturing encompasses everything from large military products all the way to mass-market products. At all levels 3D printing can make drone manufacturing even more exciting, streamlined, and accessible, also highlighting nearly every advantage of this expansive technology, stepping all the way up from the hobbyist category to top-secret industrial production for military operations.
Quantum Systems goes serial with Shapeways
Companies like Quantum Systems work with online 3D printing service provider Shapeways to develop and manufacture efficient 3D printed parts that are meant for multiple uses with ‘integral functionality’. The main benefit of using AM is identified in the reduction of the number of pieces being made while still making a quality, high-performance product. Parts are lighter in weight too—and while that is usually a key benefit for 3D printing overall, in any type of aeronautic application it is far more critical in perfecting flight and speed.
Specializing in advanced electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) with drones that merge all of the benefits of larger aircraft like helicopters and airplanes, Quantum Systems has successfully tested their drones for delivering medical samples—evidence of one more application where such technology could make a real difference.
Founded in Munich in 2015, Quantum Systems notably began using 3D printing upon their inception, taking advantage of the ability to make numerous prototypes before moving on to final production of serial production parts 3D printed via selective laser sintering through Shapeways. While Nylon 12 has been a constant in terms of 3D printing materials, Quantum Systems has also used other materials such as MJF Plastic PA12 with Shapeways.
“We used 3D printing right away, so there is no comparison. Quantum Systems is a young company. Only because of the fact that we have integrated this manufacturing method into our manufacturing and development process, have we been able to significantly reduce development time,” said Florian Seidel, CEO of Quantum Systems.
“For injection molded parts we save around 10 weeks by using 3D printed samples to release the CAD data. The probability that these parts need a second loop of corrections is quite low in this way. For CNC-manufactured parts it is the same, and we just often skip the first round of samples with 3D printed parts which saves us 3 to 4 weeks. In general, I would say 3D printing saves us 20-50% in time, depending on which parts we design.”
The use of drones for delivery services goes far beyond futuristic hype, and especially when the technology is already being used for time-critical transport of medical samples or supplies in limited form. Drones can be used to drop supplies into most remote areas, where accidents may have occurred, or where it is not initially possible for humans to enter for whatever reason. They can also be used to assess geography and assist with collecting necessary data for search and rescue missions. Drones for military applications in the future are nearly unlimited, but today they are already of critical importance for surveillance and reconnaissance missions, delivery of supplies and weapons, and even use in combat.
Aerial intelligence firm Kespry exemplifies the adaptability of drones, along with showing off their obvious power to disrupt long-standing conventional industries and practices, and in this case through autonomous, ‘hyper-detailed land surveys. Founded in 2013 and headquartered in Menlo Park, Kespry has also been 3D printing with Shapeways since its beginnings. Together, the two companies developed and manufactured something completely new with 3D printed drone models for end-use parts in Kespry’s Aerial Intelligence Platform.
“We were a very small company trying to scale up our product and get it out to market as quickly as possible. We were looking for a supplier who had reasonable scale and the right combination of lead time and cost,” said Jordan Croom, Kespry’s lead mechanical engineer who has a background in AM research and development in both metal and plastic—from his previous work in aerospace. ”We were in a unique place to be able to incorporate additive manufacturing into full-scale production, which I think is somewhat rare, even though it’s becoming more common these days. So that was new for me—to be making multiple hundreds of something per order and incorporate them into our production line.”
Shapeways worked with Kespry as they continued to scale their business, going from 3D printing just a few parts each week to hundreds throughout a typical month—without affecting quality, functionality, or accuracy in parts. As a result, Kespry drones are now used for tasks like establishing risk assessment, assisting insurance agents in closing claims, managing inventory and planning mines, helping to oversee earthwork operations in large-scale construction projects and collecting site data, and surveying large factory operations like pulp and paper mills.
“Getting the right partner is definitely important to us. Somebody with repeatable quality, where we can prove a design once. We don’t have to worry about changing or breaking in future orders,” said Croom.
Dive Technologies’ large dive into AM
Shapeways is already working with more customers as programs in design, development, and manufacturing continue to mature. And the potential that lies within drone technology today is not just in space above but also below the sea. Not long ago, Peter Zelinsky took a look at the use of 3D printing in the production of fairings for the autonomous underwater vehicles produced by Dive Technologies.
Dive Technologies’ DIVE-LD vehicle is designed around reducing total cost of ownership in offshore operations. It offers long-endurance, advanced autonomy, generous payload accommodations, and a small footprint of topside systems result in faster and safer data collection.
The driving technology behind the DIVE-LD is the Dive Technologies AUV-Kit. The AUV-Kit is comprised of core, proven subsystems for autonomy, propulsion, control, energy, communications, navigation, and mission safety. Rapid reconfiguring and scaling of these systems results in the right vehicle for the mission every time.
Combining the AUV-Kit with Dive Technologies’ proprietary hull and structure manufacturing processes leads to a different size and shape vehicle to satisfy a unique job, application, or mission, once the AUV-Kit is owned. This process utilizes Large Format Additive Manufacturing (LFAM) techniques (the BAAM systems from Cincinnati Inc), provided by specialist Additive Engineering Solutions (AES). These capabilities bring complex designs to physical robust hull forms in less than 48 hours for an entire vehicle. Producing a custom AUV can be accomplished in under 4 weeks with this AUV-Kit.
Cobra Aero flies with metal AM
It’s not all about composites and polymers: metal AM is going to have a part in drone 3D printing as well. Renishaw worked with engine manufacturing company Cobra Aero to optimize its design processes for aircraft and motorcycle engines. After working with Renishaw to develop new manufacturing processes, Cobra Aero invested in the AM 400 system to increase its additive manufacturing capabilities.
To optimize the design of its engine cylinders for motorcycles and aircraft, Cobra Aero visited a Renishaw Additive Manufacturing Solutions Centre and collaborated with Renishaw engineers to use AM to improve the design of a cylinder for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Using AM technology allowed Cobra Aero to design a lattice structure to increase airflow easily and also allowed them to produce one solid, lightweight part.
This article was updated on May 11th to include the Skydio and Arris application case study
This article was updated on June 19th to include the Cobra Aero-Renishaw case study.
This article was updated on January 9th, 2022 to include the Markforged-BRINC case study