Nov 1, 2016 | By Andre

There are extremes in just about every topic one can think of. From the smallest atom to the vast universe that surrounds it or the 3D printing of houses versus an emerging trend of tiny 3D printed robots; important discoveries can be witnessed at every scale.

A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science have recently focused their efforts on one of these ends and 3D printing was essential in accomplishing their goal of making the smallest self-powered controllable flying robot (named Piccolissimo after the Italian word for “tiniest.”).

The robot itself comes in two sizes. The lighter of the two weighs in at 2.5 grams and is about the diameter of a quarter. Its larger sibling, about 2 grams heavier and a centimetre wider has the important advantage of being remote controllable. And considering Piccolissimo only has two moving parts (a propeller and the body itself) that’s rather impressive.

Matt Piccoli, the team’s lead notes that “the body spins around 40 times per second, while the propeller spins about 800 times per second. Since the propeller is mounted off-center on the vehicle body, the propeller’s center, and therefore the location of its thrust, also spins around 40 times per second.”

This process of control doesn’t sound incredibly simple and it certainly isn’t. And as the below video shows, it appears a balancing act is still necessary for manageable flight, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

From a 3D printing perspective, a high precision 3D printer was necessary to allow the resolution and weight sought after by the team. They used a ProJet 6000 SLA 3D printer made available by the University’s engineering department but also placed orders through service bureaus like Shapeways. Considering the size of the flying robot, using a more common FDM based plastic 3D would be impractical and in this case.

Once the frame is 3D printed, a standard lithium polymer battery, tiny motors and a control board are all embedded within to complete the world’s tiniest self-powered controllable flying robot.

And in this case, the battery is very important to distinguish itself from others. Harvard’s Robobee steerable flying bot, for example, is in fact a few milimeters smaller than Piccolissimo but is tethered down by a power cord and not free to roam thanks to the aforementioned portable power source.

It’s this portability in where much of the potential for the project ultimately lies. Vijay Kumar, Dean of Penn Engineering envisions teams of these tiny robots to work in agricultural and disaster relief situations of the future and lead professor of the ModLab where Piccolissimo was born agrees.

He suggests that “with Piccolissimo, Dean Kumar's dream of 100 robots flying together in PERCH could actually happen both in terms of size and cost. And in terms of search and rescue, having 100 or 1,000 small controllable flyers could explore more of a disaster site than a single big, expensive one.”

The usefulness is further heightened by the fact that Piccolissimo can carry up to a gram’s worth of cargo. While that might not sound like a lot, it is enough for light-weight cameras and sensors such as a barcode reader. But, for the time being Piccolissimo remains in the realm of academia as the team continue with their effort.

Considering the complexity and tiny form of the device, it is difficult to imagine how the team would have made it all happen on a budget were it not for the growing accessibility of 3D printing technology. So whether whether you are building tiny flying devices, cute little programmable robots or ones capable of pulling objects up to 2,000 times their own weight there is a 3D printed miniature doing some incredible things out there today looking out for the future.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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