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Sheffield engineers use 3D printing for a 1.5m-wide UAV prototype

Engineers at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield have successfully printed a 1.5m-wide prototype unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for a research project looking at 3D printing of complex designs.

The engineers said the polymer craft could form the basis of cheap and potentially disposable UAVs that could be built and deployed in remote situations potentially within as little as 24 hours.

Earlier versions required significant amounts of support material around component parts to prevent the airframe structures from deforming during the build process. Using support material adds a direct material cost, and significantly increases build time, in some cases by an order of magnitude. This is a result of the machine having to change between build and support structure heads after each printed layer.

New 3D printing techniques, such as the fused deposition modeling (FDM) used to make the UAV at Sheffield, could soon be used in the creation of products without the need for complex and expensive tooling and the time required in traditional manufacturing.

The UAV has already completed a test flight as a glider. Researchers are developing an electric ducted fan propulsion system that will be incorporated into the airframe’s central spine. They plan to develop the craft for guidance by GPS or camera technology, controlled by an operator wearing first person-view goggles.

Following successful flight testing, we are working to incorporate blended winglets and twin ducted fan propulsion. We are also investigating full on-board data logging of flight parameters, autonomous operation by GPS, and control by surface morphing technology. Concepts for novel ducted fan designs are also being investigated.

—Dr. Garth Nicholson, project leader

The Sheffield UAV comprises nine parts that can be snapped together. It weighs less than 2kg and is made from thermoplastic. The engineers are currently evaluating the potential of nylon as a printing material that would make the UAV 60 per cent stronger with no increase in weight.

The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) with Boeing is a world-class center for advanced machining and materials research for aerospace and other high-value manufacturing sectors. It is a partnership between industry and academia.

The AMRC with Boeing identifies, researches and resolves advanced manufacturing problems, with a focus on developing new technologies and processes for machining high-performance metal alloys used in aerospace and other industries.

Researchers work with individual companies on specific projects, and collaborate on generic projects for the benefit of all members. More than 70 companies have signed up as members of the AMRC with Boeing.

The AMRC with Boeing is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, a consortium of seven manufacturing and process research centres backed by the Technology Strategy Board.

The AMRC is supported by the European Regional Development Fund.



Future large 3D printers using greatly reinforced plastic like materials will generate many future light weight BEVs bodies, batteries & parts on a 24/7 basis.

Changing or modifying digital models will take days instead of years.

Spares will be manufactured on an as required basis avoiding expensive inventories.

Improved autonomous drive vehicles will last longer without being destroyed by human drivers.

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