As 3D printing enters its mature phase, with complex engineering and development processes and, among other things, full colour, multi-material printers, new trends are emerging in the UAV industry. More flexible and affordable UAV development and production will likely translate into an explosion of models, makers, as small businesses compete with giants, and even basement operations make inroads into the market.

More flexible and affordable UAV development and production will likely translate into an explosion of models, makers, as small businesses compete with giants, and even basement operations make inroads into the market.

After a crash or a breakdown, some hobbyists are already considering buying a 3D printer rather than another UAV.

As aerial vehicles become more and more common, what will the new differentiators be?

Our guess is that contents and functionalities will become increasingly important compared to the aerial vehicle itself.

More than Pipe Dreams

In September 2014, an article in Wired magazine revealed that a research team at the University of Virginia had created a 3D printed military-grade UAV.

The size of a remote-controlled plane, the drone carries a 1.5-pound payload and can be printed anywhere for $2,500 “in a little more than a day.” Built with readily available parts, such as an Android phone, it is easily modified.

Leading the team was former Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce engineer David Sheffler, who now teaches at the university. A DoD (Department of Defense) contractor asked him to develop a 3-D printed UAV that would be easy to create with readily available parts after he built a 3-D printed jet engine in one of his classes.

The wing-shaped drone has a four-foot wingspan, weighs a little less than 6 pounds with its electronics (including a Google Nexus 5 smartphone running a custom-designed avionics app that controls the plane, and an RC-plane autopilot), and flies at 40 mph for up to 45 minutes.

Although these figures may hardly sound impressive, they herald a breakthrough that could revolutionise the young UAV industry.

Recent Milestones in 3D UAV Printing

  • In a video published in February 2015, Netherlands-based Aerialtronics claims that it can build UAVs using a Stratasys 3D printer to produce flying prototypes, reducing R&D times by 50% while including custom features.
  • In November 2015, Aurora Flight Sciences, a Virginia-based manufacturer specialising in advanced UAV systems, released a video showing “the world’s first 3D printed jet-powered aircraft. Aurora teamed up with Stratasys, a leading manufacturer of 3D printers and 3D production systems, to build the 30 lb (13.60 kg), 9 foot (2.74 m) wingspan UAV which it claims has reached 150 mph (241 kph).
  • In June 2016, United Instrument Manufacturing Corporation (UIMC) introduced a flight-tested 3D-printed surveillance drone at Russia’s Innoprom-2016 exhibition. The new UAV has a range of 50 km for a wingspan of 2.4 meters and a weight of 4 kg. Its elements are 3D-printed in one day and only “15-20 minutes” is needed to assemble them. It can be equipped with various photo and video cameras as well as communication devices, which makes it “a handy inexpensive tool for reconnaissance and monitoring.”
  • Also in June 2016, in Berlin, Airbus introduced “Thor,” a 4-meter-long 3D-printed drone with a 4-meter wingspan. Only the controls and some parts of the two engines are not printed. Weighing in at 25 kilogrammes, Thor can be built in 4 weeks at a total cost, for the printed parts, of around €25,000, whereas conventional UAVs in this category “can cost hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars.”


What’s In It for Us?

Evangelists claim that 3D UAV printing offers major advantages such as:

  • The potential for mission specific design for each aircraft
  • Tighter schedules from design to product
  • Significantly lower costs than with traditional manufacturing processes


The Aurora aircraft, for example, was developed within “half the design and build time, with up to 20 iterations per component based on CAD files.”

Companies such as Leptron Unmanned Aircraft Systems already use Stratasys technology to build one of their models, the RDASS 4, slashing lead time by 6 months and development costs by over $100,000.

And now DIY solutions , as well as varied resources are available online.

Where Does This Lead Us?

What does this mean for the drone industry?

Most likely, it will translate into more players and increased competition.

This will benefit users, as flexibility, availability and custom designs are likely to soar while prices plummet.

It also means that those who have the creativity and initiative to meet highly specialized custom needs can carve themselves specialized niches almost overnight.

However, building an unmanned aerial vehicle is just part of the game.

First of all, as UAV designs improve, they should converge to a limited range of proven types and shapes that will gradually evolve into the next generation of drones.

On the other hand, as the aerial vehicle per se become easier to develop and produce the differentiating factors will increasingly shift to the engines, batteries, and software – not to mention the UAS (Unmanned Aerial Solution or System).

In other words, with flying range and maneuverability stabilizing across various platforms, buyers will be looking for scalability, adaptability, and overall usability, as well as specific functionalities.

Luis Robert | Analyst - Arsha Consulting

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