University of Virginia team creates 3D-printed drone

When testing a flying prototype, an inventor’s biggest fear is a crash landing. David Sheffler’s team at the University of Virginia has eliminated this risk with their creation of a 3D-printed drone they call “The Razor.” If their UAV plummets to the ground, they can just print out another one on the spot!


Sheffler’s team of engineering students has devised a UAV, which utilizes an Android smartphone as the central processor. The lightweight Razor can carry a payload of 1.5 pounds and fly at speeds up to 100mph — though, Sheffler admits the “sweet spot” is around 40mph. The Android phone’s camera can be tasked to take pictures while in-flight and the navigation system can track the UAV’s distance traveled.

The former Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce engineer had designed some 3D-printed engines previously in his tenure at the university. The MITRE Corporation, a DoD contractor, caught wind of his creations and asked if he could create a 3D-printed drone that would be built with common tools and parts. Sheffler was certainly up for the task and so, The Razor was born.

The six-pound drone features nine distinct parts that can be printed for about $800 in total. If one part becomes damaged in the field, a new piece can easily be sourced and installed for a negligible cost.

The team has gone through a series of Razor prototypes before settling on the design. The first prototype — the orange and blue model seen in the video below — was based on a conventional RC aircraft comprised of balsa wood, which is much lighter and stronger than the ABS plastic used in the university’s 3D printers. The same plane made of plastic would have weighed five times as much as the wood version. “You’re printing out of a material that’s really not well-suited to making an airplane,” Sheffler tells Wired.

The ease of retooling and testing designs has made the project incredibly informative for the field of 3D-printed flight. The team’s drone can now be hand launched and patrol the skies for up to 45 minutes. If lightweight, low-cost drones like this one were implemented in crisis zones across the globe, innumerable lives could be kept out of danger.

“3D printing is at the phase where personal computers were in the 1980s. The technology is almost unbounded,” Sheffler reveals. “This program was really tasked with showing what is possible.”


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