Nov.16, 2014 | By Alec

Drones and 3D printing are a cake and ice cream; a wonderful combination. Not only are quadcopters and drones exceptionally fun toys to mess around with, they can also be as difficult to build and high-tech as you'd like. Just in the last few weeks, we've seen examples of high-tech marvels of engineering, like the compact and sturdy Backcountry Drone, and the Ambulance Drone, but also of do-it yourself 3D printed drone that you can construct with your own desktop printer.

But these all have one thing in common, and that is their plastic nature. And as there's enough plastic around in the world, biodegradable 3D printing is especially eye-catching. That's why an entry in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), made by a team of students from Stanford, Brown and Spelman College and NASA Ames Research Center is so interesting.

While the drone they developed isn't eye-catching for any traditional reasons, it is certainly note-worthy for its biodegradable chassis, made from a combination of fungi, bacteria and wasp saliva.

6" by 6" by 1" sample of Ecovative's lightweight mycelium-based biomaterial.

Now this biological material isn't in itself 3D printed, but rather molded around 3D printed prototypes. By their own admission, its 'pseudo-natural and pseudo-industrial'. Yes, this means it still employs some plastic, but it also means you could potentially 3D print a single quadcopter, and construct a fleet of biodegradable drones based on its parts.

It was designed as an entry to the iGEM competition, which revolves around getting students excited about synthetic biology. Student teams are armed with a kit of biological parts, which they use and redesign to build biological systems and living cell environments.

This particular drone consists of several layers of biological materials. As the team explained, the real challenge was finding a material that was both sturdy, durable, degradable and yet waterproof. Especially that last combination is difficult to realize, as objects tend to start degrading when coming in contact with that water.

A piece of fungal mycelium skinned in bacterial cellulose.

They therefore began experimenting with producing number of materials: 'We began by producing cellulose in sheets and cellulose acetate non-biologically. Seeing that primarily cellulose materials are extremely strong and tough, but tear easily and becomes soggy when wet, we sought to increase the durability of the cellulose by grinding it into pieces to create a cellulose paste (that became spreadable into sheets like paper made from wood pulp) and stretching and twisting it into ropes to add strength.'

Eventually, however, they reached out to a New York based company called Evocative Design, who could help them in finding a durable and lightweight material. That company has been pioneering fungal-mycelium-based biomaterial company that is dedicated to developing and producing biodegradable packing and insulation materials (also known as Greensulate).This turned out to have all the necessary qualities for a chassis.

To this, they applied a skin of bacterial cellulose that had been grown in a lab. When added to their chassis and dried, this formed a tough, leather-like layer that added durability. And finally, to make their drone waterproof as well, they added a layer of paper was saliva, that is also used to make wasp nests. Rather than tackling a swarm of bees, this too was grown in a laboratory using wasp proteins.

Harvesting a pure bacterial cellulose sheet.

A piece of cellulose leather generated by laying multiple sheets of cellulose together in perpendicular orientations.

Experimenting with cellulose material shape.

Mycelium drone chassis

And that, in a biodegradable nutshell, is how this drone has been made. Of course, the electronics and other parts are simply those you'd also find on one of the many 3D printable drone designs on the web. While thus not entirely a fully biodegradable and fully 3D printed drone, this bio-initiative is certainly saving quite a lot of filament and therefore definitely worth reporting on. Yesterday we covered a 3D printer called JuicyPrint, which can be fed with fruit juice to print on demand 3D structures of bacterial cellulose which could be used in all sorts of applications, such as paper product, electronics and biomedical devices. Perhaps a follow-up project can use such a printer to achieve the same results?

In case anyone would like to try for themselves, the Stanford-Brown-Spelman team has graciously shared the necessary STL files for this prototype drone. While not providing the biodegradable materials to replicate their own droid, thy invite everyone to take up this bio-printing challenge for themselves.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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