Are 3D Printed Drones the Next Big Thing?

Drones are quickly changing from being classified as toys to becoming integral tools for many industries, but industrial versions are still costly. Each component needs to be both strong and lightweight, and shifting designs make it challenging for manufacturers to keep up with industry demands. The implementation of 3D printing and CNC machining in the drone industry might be the next big thing that will change the sector.

Reducing Costs

We’ve all seen the miniature drones that have become popular as toys and photography tools in recent years. They have limited flight time and can only carry a lightweight camera. They’re fairly affordable, with small models costing less than $50, but they’re not capable of commercial applications. Those industrial drones have been out of reach for most businesses because they’re exorbitantly expensive.

3D printing is making itself known in nearly every industry, and household printers are becoming more affordable every year. Experts estimate that by 2030, the sector will sell more than 100 million 3D printers, and upwards of 70% of companies are increasing their investments in this technology.

3D printing may change that by giving businesses and consumers the tools to build their own commercial drones for a fraction of the cost — as long as they already have access to a 3D printer.

Build Your Own Drone

Designing, prototyping and building a drone is a traditionally challenging task. It requires days or weeks of research and development, design, construction and testing before the drone is ready to take flight. 3D printing and CNC machining give businesses and consumers the tools to create their own drones in a matter of days. One such example took less than 30 hours total, and the majority of that time was spent on things like waiting for 3D printed parts to finish forming.

You can purchase a premade commercial drone kit, or — if you’re skilled in electrical engineering — you can create custom electronic components to meet your design’s needs.

For applications like these — whether you’re buying pre-made or fabricating your own electronics — you need to make sure your components are properly shielded to protect them from weather, moisture and impact damage that could send your drone crashing down. G10/FR4, for example, has a tensile strength of 35,000 to 40,000 psi and a compressive strength of 35,000 to 60,000 psi. This tensile and compressive strength makes it ideal for shielding your electronics while still being easy to die-cut or feed through your CNC machine.

Switching to 3D printing isn’t just useful for individuals looking to build a commercial drone for a fraction of the cost. It’s beneficial for companies, too. Aerialtronics, a drone startup based in the Netherlands, is a small company with only 35 employees. By switching to 3D printed drone parts — and managing its own printers in-house — the company has managed to cut R&D time in half. It feeds CAD designs directly into the 3D printer, lowering costs and improving the overall applications for the technology.

Benefits of Using Drones

Why are companies looking toward drones as a tool to help them run their business? Once these commercial devices become more affordable, the potential uses are limitless. Amazon and other retail outlets have been exploring using drones for last-mile deliveries, though they are still trying to work out the kinks of dealing with the FAA. Emergency services can use drones equipped with GPS technology to reach accident and emergency sites long before police or fire vehicles can. In construction, drones can inspect job sites, check that safety rules are being followed and even survey undeveloped property without needing a helicopter.

As they become more affordable, drones will be an invaluable tool in nearly every industry. The move toward 3D printing is the first step in making commercial drones more accessible for the average business owner or hobbyist.

Looking Toward the Future

Drones are proving to be useful tools in nearly every industry, from agriculture to construction and everything in between. 3D printing and CNC milling are emerging as ways to reduce the costs of industrial drones, making them more affordable for all interested parties.