How Additive Manufacturing Is Accelerating Drone Production

31 May 2024
Photo by Jonathan Lampel on Unsplash

Demand for drones is skyrocketing. 

While unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were initially developed for military purposes, the applications of this technology are increasingly diversifying from consumer to commercial uses. Drones have the power to transform a range of sectors with the likes of construction, transport and photography adopting the technology.

It should come as no surprise that demand for drones is on track to reach astronomical heights. In 2022, the drone market size was valued at $22.4 billion and is set to reach $166.7 billion by 2031

Concurrently, another trend is emerging: the use of additive manufacturing (AM) in drone production. Additive manufacturing is an innovative technology that has similarly seen increased adoption, but why is this process fuelling drone production?

The benefits of using AM for drone production

Photo courtesy of Miguel Angel Hernandez on Unsplash
Photo courtesy of Miguel Angel Hernandez on Unsplash

Of course, some of the benefits of using 3D printing to manufacture drones are applicable to 3D printing in general. Rapid prototyping, low production runs and distributed manufacturing streamlining logistics processes are part and parcel of AM.

However, these benefits are particularly well-suited to the production requirements of drone manufacturing. As Chris Huskamp argues, one example of this is AM’s ability to produce lightweight yet strong machines.

According to Huskamp, 3D printing drones allows manufacturers to strike the right balance of weight and power. As anyone working in aerospace could tell you, machines designed to carry heavy loads need to be light themselves to avoid expending extra power during flight.

With its ability to print in complex geometries such as lattices, additive manufacturing can ensure that the drones are lightweight without sacrificing the strength of the aircraft.

Another key factor to consider is not simply how the drones are made but what they’re made with. As manufacturers in the aerospace industry increasingly adopt composite materials such as carbon fibers, 3D printing presents itself as an ideal solution for drone manufacturing. 

According to Jeff Sloan, editor-in-chief of CompositesWorld, without the tool-related limitations of other manufacturing processes such as CNC machining, AM offers a faster and more efficient way of fabricating composites. 

It’s also worth pointing out that there is a huge variation of drone types designed to fit a range of requirements. Fixed-wing drones are made for long-edurance flights making them ideal for drone delivery, whereas multi-rotor drones used for aerial photography or video need good camera control. The diversity of requirements lends itself well to the customisation that 3D printing processes offer. 

The future of 3D printing and drones

Photo courtesy of Jared Brashier on Unsplash
Photo courtesy of Jared Brashier on Unsplash

Amazon made headlines in 2013 when it announced that it would be rolling out a drone-based delivery service. A decade later, the company has only expanded the scope of this service. Evidently, beyond defence, drones’ abilities for unmanned travel and capturing aerial views without the need for a runway or landing strip can be widely applicable to a lot of sectors. 

In fact, according to the ICO, many commercial sectors are set to follow Amazon’s example and utilize drones in their operations including such as “health, construction and transportation”. 

Drones can also be helpful in emergency services scenarios monitoring hazardous areas, providing “real-time situational awareness” and aiding in search and rescue missions. 

The ICO goes on to predict that drones will have increased capabilities being able to, “fly in higher airspaces, able to cover further distances for longer amounts of time, with the ability to carry cargo of varying weights.”

Given the increased demand for drones and their increased abilities, it seems like a natural step to introduce ways of producing these on-site and on-demand.

The 3D-printed drones taking to the skies

Photo courtesy of RapidFlight
Photo courtesy of RapidFlight

Meet RapidFlight, a US-based company founded in 2021 that uses AM to design and manufacture unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The company’s approach to manufacturing prioritises speed, quality and innovation. As well as using AMFG software to automate its workflow, RapidFlight’s use of AM is central to its operations, reducing the need for costly tooling and ensuring an accelerated design-to-manufacturing process.

Earlier this year, the company, announced the release of its Mobile Production Systems (MPS). MPS enables the manufacturing and deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from forward locations to enable mass manufacturing of drones from anywhere in the world.

Similarly, April 2024 saw San Diego-based defence startup Firestorm Labs win $12 million in funding to develop its drone additive manufacturing programme. 

Firestorm Labs aims to manufacture drones in shipping container factors for rapid production. The drone’s frame would be printed and quickly enhanced with additional parts including pre-configured brains, engines and payloads. Furthermore, distributed printing reduces delivery times, ensuring that the drones can efficiently arrive where they’re needed. 

CEO Dan Magy estimates that the factories will produce over 500 drones a month and highlights speed as a key benefit. “You can make modifications in hours or days as opposed to weeks.”

The work of these companies indicates that the speed and flexibility of production offered by additive manufacturing directly speak to the manufacturing requirements of drone production.

A case study: the drones building the future

Photo courtesy of Imperial College London
Photo courtesy of Imperial College London

The most obvious example of the symbiosis between drones and 3D printing is in the recent developments in Aerial Additive Manufacturing (AAM) for construction. 3D printing practices have already been used in construction with the 3D printing construction market valued at $1.4 billion in 2021. However, thanks to a team of researchers at Imperial College London and UCL, additive manufacturing is being taken, quite literally, to the next level.

Unveiled in 2022, AAM technology would see drones kitted out with 3D printing capabilities. Taking their inspiration from the building patterns of bees and wasps, these drones would be able to be used in construction either to carry out reparative work or to build entirely new structures. Moreover, to ensure the accuracy required to ensure the stability of the buildings, the drones use AI learning to adapt their building techniques as required

According to the researchers, this technology could prove invaluable for the construction sector. Drones could be used for repairs in inaccessible areas, for example, tall buildings, or for building shelters in disaster-hit areas.

Where the project has the potential to come full circle is in the production of these drones themselves. Given the weight of the building materials and the equipment the drones must carry, weight is a key consideration in this project. As such, using the weight optimisation techniques allowed by additive manufacturing could enable the necessary weight-strength balance required by these drones.

The question remains, could we see a future in which 3D-printed drones then go on to be 3D printers themselves?

Drones and additive manufacturing: a match made in heaven?

Photo courtesy of Chad McCoy via LinkedIn
Photo courtesy of Chad McCoy via LinkedIn

The complementary advantages of 3D printing and drones allow for a technology that can be produced quickly and at the site where they’re needed. With AM producing processes lending themselves well to the structural and material considerations of drone manufacturing, it seems inevitable that this process will be increasingly adopted by manufacturers. 

Despite this, some remain sceptical about the increased need for additive manufacturing particularly regarding the production of drones for defence. In an interview with Forbes, Kratos Defense unmanned systems division president, Steve Fendley told Forbes that additive manufacturing is not yet considered a necessary ingredient in the production of its midsize and larger unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

While this may be the case now, we could reach a point where 3D printing is a crucial process both for defence and for drone manufacturing across the board.

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