Aug 29, 2016 | By Alec

Have you ever thought about 3D printing your very own drone? We certainly have, and there are plenty of designs out there that will help you conquer to skies. While we usually hide behind excuses that emphasize a lack of time or energy and the fragility of a 3D printed drone, Sculpteo intern and student Alexis Massol is making us feel foolish by showing just how easy it can be. Starting out with zero experience, he built his first drone while in charge of his school’s Fablab and just completed an optimized version through Sculpteo. A truly inspiring story that will leave your 3D printing fingers aching.

But it cannot be denied that Alexis Massol is also a hugely talented maker about whom we will doubtlessly hear more in the future. A mechanical engineering student, he is currently working as an intern for French company Sculpteo – one of the biggest providers of 3D printing services in the world, who were recently also hooked up with Carbon’s CLIP 3D printing technology.

As Alexis revealed, he took his first step into the drone world while still in high school. “I wanted to use one to make videos. Ideally, in the future, I want to have several drones that will automatically fly around the house and serve as a surveillance system,” he says. Starting out with a store-bought drone, he quickly became unsatisfied with it due to connectivity and stability problems. “That’s why I decided to build my own drone, that I could pilot with a controller and my laptop, for doubled safety,” he says.

Fortunately, he had all the necessary tools at his exposal as head of his school’s Fablab. Though lacking experience, he found plans, materials and electrical components online and built a fully functional drone over the course of a few months – using nothing but his school’s FDM 3D printer. It’s a particularly inspiring project, as Alexis is largely self-taught. Through the internet, he educated himself about every step of the design process, and even taught himself to use SolidWorks. This is why it took several months, but he also ended up with extensive 3D design experience.

For his first design, Alexis chose to rely on PLA filament, as he really liked the idea of biodegradable 3D printing materials. Unfortunately, this filament could hardly live up to expectations set by professional-grade drones (like the Phantom 4). It also didn’t fly very well at first, due to his own inexperience. “When I 3D printed the first frame, I had almost no experience, so the test was literally a crash test: I hadn’t checked the landing forces, and at first landing, the landing gears broke,” Alexis recalled. “But then I learned to use the SolidWorks tools for simulations. It allows me to make sure the design is right for the material I chose and the applications I’ll want, by simulating the application of various forces on the parts.”

Early concept.

With these tools, he was able to optimize the design to carry the weight, and eventually reached a flyable version that can withstand a fall of a few meters. All in all, it was a very satisfying experience. “Thanks to 3D printing, I can also choose the components and options that I want, and customize the drone at will. I just have to design emplacements that fit the components in the frame of the drone,” he said, adding that 3D printing also made it an affordable project.

But once he learnt about the potential of Sculpteo’s services through his internship, Alexis couldn’t resist revising his model through the new tools now at his fingertips. In particular, he focused on making the entire drone lighter and more efficient. Settling on white polyamide (PA 12), which is 3D printed using Selective Laser Sintering, he built a final version of his frame that weighs just 367 grams. With the rest of the electronics, gimbals and camera added, the final weight clocks in at an impressive 1.5 kg. A polished finish finally completed the fantastic drone.

Most importantly, it flies very well. “The drone functions well, it is equipped with an object detecting system, a compass, GPS, and a GoPro camera, and has a wide range: it can move as far as 1km from the command. I know the components are of high quality because I ordered them from the same company as the model drone I had in mind when designing,” he said. Costing €1,600 (about $1800 USD), it is also about as expensive as a retail drone of inferior quality.

This perfectly underlines the power of digital manufacturing. While a budget 3D printer might not deliver the results you imagined, it certainly paves the way for low-cost development. A professional service can then give the final necessary push. Alexis, meanwhile, is already thinking about his next upgrade. “I’m thinking of adding a screen, maybe create glasses for first person vision, maybe increase the range even more with an amplifier, and make it run automatically,” he says. He is also looking at patenting, so we might see a whole lot more of this drone in the near future.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Tim wrote at 8/31/2016 9:54:48 PM:

Seems like an awesome project! I like the initiative to make your own and be able to completely customize it. However I don't see how a 3d printed drone could cost you $1600, especially in a maker lab environment... At minimum, wouldn't one be able to scavenge parts (motors, controller, propellers etc) from other very cheap drones and just customize the frame etc? Any plans to open source the design, or put parts up with other designs such as thingiverse, etc?

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