Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) have come a long way since their first use in World War I. While UAV development has occurred primarily in defense operations, recently UAV’s have been developed for civil and commercial applications. Rapid advances in technology are enabling UAV’s more capabilities in smaller frames; one of those technologies is 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing.
With the design freedom allowing for part consolidation and lighter parts, 3D printing has significantly contributed to the development of UAV’s and their latest applications. Below are two highlighted examples of how additive manufacturing is changing the production of these unique aircrafts.
Area-I provides flight research for commercial aviation and NASA by mimicking real situations for larger aircraft to reveal airflow dynamics and circulation experiments on a small scale with implications and results relevant to larger aircrafts. Their unmanned Prototype-Technology Evaluation and Research Aircraft (PTERA) serves a bridge between wind tunnel and manned flight testing by enabling the low-cost, low-risk flight-based evaluation of a wide array of high risk technologies. The agency exists to help identify issues between wind tunnel and full-scale flight testing and allows researchers to learn as much as possible about a technology before the investment is made in carrying out full-scale flights.
The vehicles for accomplishing this mid-range testing are specific, customizable UAV’s. Area-I engineers had previously shied away from complex designs, limiting the parameters they could accomplish for mimicking full-scale air flight. With the freedoms of design from 3D printing, they were able to build mechanisms and structures they couldn’t previously manufacture. Using 3D printing helped the team at Area-I to create components quickly and accurately that mimic their larger commercial counterparts without complicated and expensive machining.
Recommending Laser Sintering (LS) technology and NyTek 1200 CF, a carbon-filled nylon material, we helped produce a complex fuel tank, ailerons, flaps and a control surface for PTERA. LS builds with a powerful laser that melts powdered nylons layer by layer. The parts remain encased in powder during the build, removing the need for support structures and allowing for complex geometries. These design benefits make LS a perfect fit for aerospace production applications.
The ailerons that originally took 24 man hours to hand-build, were designed, built with LS technology and assembled onto the UAV in only three days. The freedom of design allowed the Area-I engineers to add an inner anti-slosh baffling to steady PETRA in flight without losing fuel space and consolidate a duct component that had previous flown under the tank.
Advanced Ceramics Research designed a small UAV, The Silver Fox, for low cost aerial surveillance imaging and to carry sensor payload packages. They wanted to develop a more reliable and larger fuel tank for the UAV while not occupying additional fuselage space.
We recommended LS to produce the complex geometry with interior features from NyTek 1100 material. The re-designed fuel tank provided greater structural integrity from the integrated piece and incorporated wire-way clearance passages for electrical wiring and cable routing. The part’s new shape increased fuel volume by 25% and included bulkheads to add additional strength and reduce fuel movement, resulting in a longer but more stable flight.
We were able to deliver, adjust and build three prototypes and 12 production fuel tanks in less than 5 weeks for Advanced Ceramics Research.
The advancements of 3D printing technology help create integral components for these advancing aircrafts quickly, accurately and at a reduced cost. The benefits are lending in the advancement of UAV’s for future applications. The projected commercial expansion of UAV’s, including drones and other similar recreational aircrafts, is widening the marketplace for this technology. In the coming years, 3D printing will likely continue to contribute to this marketplace and the unique world of unmanned flight.