3D Printing and Drones

Why would you want to 3D print a drone?

Printing your own 3D drone is becoming very popular these days. Printing your own drone enables you to get familiar with the hobby and learn more about it. It is a DIY (Do It Yourself) way of approaching the hobby. The biggest advantages of 3D printing a drone are: smaller expenses for the parts, and that you can make the drone of your choosing. By that I mean that you can make it more or less durable, depending on what you want to do with it. By choosing better and more durable materials, you can make it more resistant to crashes. On the other hand, if you do not expect to crash much and are confident in your flying, you can save on materials and build the drone with cheaper materials. Also replacement parts can be expensive and you can save a lot of money by using a 3D printed drone.

What can be printed?

The good thing about 3D printing is that many things on a drone can be printed. The things that are most often printed are:

  • Frame
  • Propellers
  • Wiring cover (attachments around a wire between antenna and the transmitter)
  • Frame for camera and other frames
  • [sometimes] also mounts for camera
  • Gimbal
  • Landing gear (like landing legs if you decide to make them)

Things that are in general not printed on a drone are:

  • Camera
  • Wiring
  • Antenna
  • Video transmitter
  • Motors

The things that cannot be printed are usually technical components which need to be bought. They do influence the quality of your drone and also the price. However, current 3D printing science is not developed enough to print such complicated designs.

3d_printer

There are also some other things that are often 3D printed but are not a part of a drone, for example receiver and controller. The biggest advantage here beside the price is – again that you can customize the design to your own needs.

Where are 3D printed drones used?

3D printed drones are used in many different applications. It often happens that manufacturers are 3D printing the components of their drones which they are then selling to the local market. This has proven to be price effective. Also some drone enthusiasts and 3D printing enthusiasts and experts are often using 3D printing technology as well. Especially professional flyers often want to make customized designs and for them 3D printing is necessary. They need special designs and materials and that can only be done if their drone is custom made. And that is possible with 3D printing. Commercial drones are therefore often 3D printed. But besides that drones are reportedly also printed in military applications by the USA and some other militaries. That is because 3D printing has become very easy, so it is now easy to make drones quickly with 3D printers. They can do this on their operations for example in the navy. Of course those drones are not made for commercial use, but rather for military and spying operations. So those drones could be different from drones as most hobbyists know them.

The rise of 3D printing

As 3D printing is becoming more popular, affordable and easy, it is increasingly used in more applications. Many factories are using it. Some schools are teaching students how to use them already. The concept was developed in 1984 and since then the industry has advanced remarkably. Since it is getting very easy to just copy some physical product and then remanufacture it through 3D printing, there is a fear of “offline piracy.” However patent cases over 3D printing rights are not that frequent. That is mainly because 3D printing is still on the rise, so there might be more of them in the future.

3D printing drone designs

One way of 3D printing drones is that you make your own design of how you want a drone to look. That can of course work. But if you want an easier solution, there are other alternatives. There are many 3D designs that can be found on the Internet. That is because there are quite a lot of people 3D printing drones and they share their designs and 3D printing files. As the community grows, there are more and more designs posted on the Internet. One site which contains many of the designs already and is constantly adding more is thingiverse. Another is pinshape. If you are looking for a design for your drone (although there are mostly quadcopters), then that is the right address. They have more than 1000 different designs of various drones.

frame

Another way to get to some designs in case you are just trying to 3D print spare parts, is to ask the manufacturer to give you the designs. To be honest, from my experience that is not the best way to get the designs (since many manufacturers are not keen to give them away), but it is certainly possible. Also 3D printing forums are nowadays sharing many tips which I personally find very interesting and educating. As this industry grows, the number of forums is growing. 3D printing companies are also growing very fast and it might not be such a bad idea to save the cost of buying a 3D printer and instead just have your design printed in the local 3D printing shop. There are a few 3D printing shops in every city. But in case you live in the countryside, it is also possible to print it over the Internet.

Personal experience

My personal experience with 3D printing was that we used a 3D printer of some 3D printing company and then made our personal design. 3D printers in general cost above $1000. With them we made custom made quadcopter for photography purposes. We printed frame, gimbal and camera frame. The designs were custom made as most of the customized quadcopters demand custom made components. That was because in my experience we wanted a special gimbal and wanted to make the whole frame water resistant. For that we also had to make sure to use water resistant materials.

Materials

When printing a drone it is in general important to know which materials are used on a drone. A frame is usually made of one of the following:

  • Carbon fiber is widely used. The material is light and stiff and therefore a great material to make a drone with. But it is quite expensive. It is conductive and you should be aware that it can block a signal. It is still a very useful material.
  • Aluminum is also widely used. The material is cheap and light (although not as light as carbon fiber). It is also conductive so care must be taken when applying it with batteries.
  • Fiberglass is similar to carbon fiber. But it is heavier and softer than carbon fiber. It is easy and cheap to build, but hard to repair. Because of that it does not have the best reputation.
  • Polycarbonate or Lexan is a bit heavy and stiff, but not very strong. The good thing about it is that it is quite inexpensive, especially from Simply Plastics. It is conductive and easy to construct.
  • Balsa Wood is another cheap material that is light and strong. It is fairly stiff and it is easy to construct parts with it. But it is not so widely used because it has low density and reduces thrust.
  • Steel is also sometimes used. Its obvious downside is that it is too heavy and therefore not the best for drones. The good thing about it is that it is very strong material.
  • Titanium is a very strong and light material. As such it is one of the best materials for drones. The downside? It is very expensive.

All in all, it is good to know the physical properties of materials before using them on your design. That is why a proper research should be made before you start 3D printing your drone.

carbon fiber

Pay attention to

When you start building your drone you have to take into account the reasons why you want to build your drone. If you want an FPV racing quadcopter, make sure you make a design of the frame such that it will suit an FPV racing quadcopter most. Also think upfront and choose appropriate materials when planning. This will ensure you that you will have a good design and drone in the end. It is very similar with other parts that you use on your drone.

Steps

Steps are actually not that hard. First you just print all the parts and then you put all the electronics and all the parts together. The first time it might be a bit hard, but you learn as you go and you can 3D print drones much easier the second time around. It becomes a hobby and an interesting thing to do. And flying around with your custom made drone is extremely rewarding in the end.

About the Author

Credits for this article go to Thomas Foster who is an owner of quadcopter review site and a drone enthusiast. In his free time he likes flying his quadcopters and making aerial photos. You can also reach him on Twitter.