Turns out DIY designer dreams really do come true. Researchers at the University of Virginia have created the first 3D-printed military grade drone for the US Department of Defense. The small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is the size of a remote-controlled plane (surprise, huh?) and can carry up to 1.5 pounds.
And for just $2,500, the device can be printed and assembled with off-the-shelf parts. David Sheffler and his team designed it to be controlled by an Android phone, which allows the UAV to offer larger memory, 3G/LTE connectivity, and fast processors.
Sheffler was asked by DoD contractors MITRE Corporation to build a 3D-printed drone after they saw his 3D-printed jet engine. The Department wanted a UAV that could be easily modified and built with readily available parts. Because the UAV is 3D-printed it can also be scaled to larger or smaller sizes, equipped with sensors or cameras, and operate at adjustable speeds. Plus, the plane is so inexpensive to produce that it's nearly disposable, and if one iteration is flawed or destroyed you can just crank out another.
The ABS plastic used in many 3D printers is much heavier than typical balsa wood, which is used in RC planes. "You're printing out of a material that's really not well-suited to making an airplane," Sheffler told Wired. The layered nature of 3D prints also led to structural weaknesses. This is why the team decided on the wing-like "razor" design. The final product, with a 4-foot wingspan, weighs just 1.8 pounds, and closer to 6 pounds with a bevy of electronics installed. It can fly 40 mph for as long as 45 minutes.