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Virginia Tech hosting debut student competition to design 3-D printed aircraft, ground vehicles

Virginia Tech will host a university-wide competition for students to design on-demand, remote-controlled 3-D printed aircraft and ground vehicles. The Spring 2014 Additive Manufacturing Grand Challenge launches 4 March and offers $15,000 in cash prizes, including $3,000 for first prize in each of the air and ground vehicle competitions, and $250 for each team that creates a functional vehicle.

Undergraduate and graduate students, individually or in groups, are invited to participate from across the university, no matter their course of study.

The goal is to build an operational, remotely piloted ground or air vehicle made entirely or almost entirely via 3-D printed (additive manufacturing) materials, that will allow future deployed military or civilian engineers to fabricate remotely-piloted vehicles while in battlefield or austere environmental conditions, such as the site of a natural disaster to search for survivors or carry out reconnaissance missions.

The Additive Manufacturing Grand Challenge combines two emerging technologies, 3-D printing and autonomous systems to challenge and inspire students to team and create innovative solutions for ground and aerial vehicles. This competition promises to catapult Virginia Tech to a leadership position in additive manufacturing linked to robotic systems.

—Al Wicks, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the university’s Mechatronics Lab

Wicks is organizing the competition with Christopher Williams, head of Virginia Tech’s Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Lab, along with the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation.

The Air Force’s Office of Scientific Research is providing the majority of funding for the competition, with other sponsors including the National Defense University’s Center for Technology and National Security Policy. Separately, Maryland-based engineering firm Robotic Research LLC is donating vehicle electronic kits and the nonprofit energy investment Stiefel Family Foundation is providing cash awards.

The challenge, according to organizers, is motivated by a vision of on-demand manufacturing in remote locations via additive manufacturing as civilian and military organizations plan to design shipping containers that contain several 3-D printers. Those printers then can be used by engineers or even lay persons to simply download and print replacement parts, or fabricate novel mission-specific parts on-demand.

Such efforts would take the place of waiting for relief by rescue workers or additional military personnel to arrive, which could be slowed by closed routes due to a disaster or battle conditions.

As part of the competition, to simulate harsh or remote conditions, student teams will be challenged to create a ground or air vehicle using only the raw material of a 3-D printer and a provided standardized, off-the-shelf electronics kit, such as motors, battery, receiver, etc., according to challenge organizers.

At the competition finale—to be held 15 May on the Virginia Tech campus—student participants will pilot their printed ground/air vehicle around an obstacle course and photograph four different points of interest.

Designs will be judged both on their ability to navigate the course—time to complete mission and number of obstacles cleared—and their effective use of additive manufacturing—time to print and assemble, number of 3-D printed parts that comprise the vehicle.

The challenge at Virginia Tech is seen by the Air Force as the starting off point for larger, future competitions at US universities that have established 3-D printing lab programs.

At the Air Force Research Laboratory, our mission is to lead the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for America’s aerospace forces. Additive manufacturing is a potential game-changing manufacturing technology for our military platforms. The Air Force Office of Scientific Research is excited to help lead the development and education of our future engineers through this Grand Challenge competition on the design of additive manufacturing.

—David Stargel, division chief of Dynamical Systems and Control at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research

Future competitions likely will include high schools, private tech firms, and other hobbyists, as the Air Force seeks to spur a growing engineering workforce in both 3-D printing technology and deployable manufacturing.



Future 3D printing will give small groups the means to manufacture low cost complex weapons and delivery vehicles. It will be costly to keep one step ahead.


I had a total of 3 different 3D printers in my university lab. The first was an early (1990 stereo lithography) and then 2 Fused Deposition Modelers (FDM). While the newer machines have improved, I was not very impressed with the capabilities of these machines. The ability to make weapons with these machines is very overstated. Basically, I always felt that the universities liked these machines as you could make something without any knowledge of real manufacturing techniques. If you want something other than a one-off models, these machines are mostly a waste of time.

I also had a number of high quality CNC machine tools and had the ability to make real parts including transmission and engine parts.

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