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Jun 24

Trial and Air - Unmanned Aircraft Designed With 3D Printing

Inspired by an Air Force defense program, SelectTech Geospatial proved that an innovative company could make an unmanned aerial system (UAS) quickly, and with limited resources. SelectTech’s test flight also marked the first time a 3D Printed UAS took off and landed on its own gear. This side project succeeded without funding or the expertise of aeronautical engineers; Executive Director Frank Beafore said of himself and colleague Beth Galang, “We’re just a couple of bachelor-degreed engineers with design experience that love to rise to a challenge.” Beafore relied on a trial-and-error approach, learning from each iteration, and he says Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printing made this possible.

The costs of prototyping with Dimension 3D printing compared with the costs of traditional methods

Frank Beafore (left), and Beth Galang created a UAS through a highly iterative process with functional 3D printed prototypes. The team posed with pilot Jad Lowrey after the drone’s first flight.

SelectTech’s Advanced Manufacturing Facility specializes in technical solutions for C2ISR (command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). Its mission: delivering fast, lean, flexible manufacturing processes for rapid deployment. They refined the entire airframe, which has a 4-foot wingspan, through discoveries from physical prototypes. Galang modeled Beafore’s concepts in CAD, printed parts for testing, and modified the designs to correct problems that arose. “We’d discover physical failures, redesign, and get the parts printing on the FDM machine immediately,” Galang said. Galang selected FDM to avoid tooling, and chose a Dimension 3D Printer for its part strength, precision and rapid turnaround.

SelectTech started with the wings, which are critical in making the UAS easy to fly for long durations. Galang’s design incorporated an engineered internal structure with the thinnest skin possible. “We approached it by pushing the wings beyond their limits. Then we backed off a bit to hit an optimal configuration,” said Galang. The trial-and-error method continued for all of the airframe components, as shown in its first taxi test. Cruising along the runway, the UAS hit a bump that caused the wings to buckle. “For us, this was a positive result. We learned something,” said Beafore. “We immediately went back into CAD to reconfigure the fuselage. The next day, we had new FDM parts for more testing.”

A hard, forced landing broke the nose cone, promting a redesign with added reinforcement

SelectTech Geospatial's 3D-printed UAS soard to 200ft in a successful test flight

The second taxi test was too successful; the UAS unexpectedly took to the skies without flight controls. So Beafore forced a hard landing that destroyed the wing tip and nose. “We learned that both needed strengthening. We simply did another round of CAD and FDM parts.” Their experimental approach led them to the big day: the drone’s first flight.

“It flew beautifully,” said Jad Lowrey, test pilot. The UAS took off under its own power, cruised at 200 feet and landed softly. With an airframe made entirely of FDM's ABSplus thermoplastic, it became the first 3D-printed UAS to do so. From concept to flight took just eight months. According to Beafore, if this had been a funded, mainstream project, it would have been much faster. “I know we could have had a first concept ready for testing in a couple of weeks if Beth and I had worked on this full time,” he said.
According to Beafore, introducing a new UAS was secondary to demonstrating what is possible with 3D printing; this project demonstrated to clients that a complex product can be made, tested, and manufactured without the overhead of computer simulation and wind-tunnel testing. “Our success proves that this rapid-response method is ideal for sophisticated products. It is a speedy way to shake down new products before committing to a final design and manufacturing tools.” An easier product, like a ground vehicle, might have proved this approach. But according to Galang, Chief Designer, “We wanted to push this process to the limits, so we opted to create a new UAS.”

With its findings from the flight, SelectTech will make additional modifications before building the full-size, production UAS. Although it will have a carbon-fiber airframe — purely for strength-to-weight ratio, FDM’s role will continue. Beafore’s plan is to 3D print structural members, wing tips and mounting hardware. Now that it has demonstrated success with the rapid-response, iterative process, SelectTech will use it as the model for future projects. “3D printing is an enabler,” said Beafore. “It is vital in our goal of rapid response with innovative solutions to challenging projects.”

Shown prepped for test flight, SelectTech's UAS with an all-FDM airframe was the first such craft to take off and land under its own power.

 - Stratasys Team


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