Dec 2, 2017 | By Tess

A team from MIT’s AeroAstro labs is developing a small 3D printed drone for the U.S. Air Force which could be deployed from a fighter jet and fly at top speeds to collect valuable date and divert enemy weapons.

The 3D printed drone, known as “Firefly”, is being built to fill a gap in the Air Force’s fleet for compact UAVs that can be launched in-flight by a fighter jet and reach speeds of Mach 0.8 (about 988 km/h).

(Image: MIT)

Of course, this means that the drone being developed by the AeroAstro engineers is not your run-of-the-mill 3D printed quadcopter, as the Firefly resembles something more along the lines of a lean blimp or zeppelin.

Notably, the Firefly’s designers are working within tight constraints for the drone, both in terms of size (it has to be a maximum of 2.5 inches in width and 17 inches in length), and capacity (it has to fly at Mach 0.8 speeds for around two to five minutes).

This, as John Hansman, MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, explained, is because “there was no vehicle with this speed, at this size, that could deploy off an aircraft. It is too small for a turbine and too fast for electric, while a pulse-jet presents thermal problems.”

In other words, designing a drone to fit the Air Force’s specific requirements is no easy feat.

Fortunately, and thanks to the ingenuity of MIT’s AeroAstro lab researchers, solutions are being developed, making the Firefly drone’s existence possible.

For instance, the team turned to titanium 3D printing to construct the drone’s structure, which enabled them to create a compact but efficiently designed body for the UAV, and opted for a small-scale rocket motor to power the drone.

Another problem that arose had to do with the burning rate of the drone’s fuel. As the researchers explain, they had to find a way to slow the fuel burn rate down in order to allow the 3D printed titanium drone to fly at Mach 0.8 speeds for at least a few minutes, while a rocket of the same size would typically use up its fuel in only seconds.

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To do this, the team mixed the fuel (an ammonium perchlorate propellant) with an oxamide inhibitor, which acts as a “burn-rate suppressant.” This mixture, through chemical composition, “cools the flame and changes the flame structure so that is actually burns slower,” explained Tony Tao, a doctoral student working on the project.

This fuel mixture will enable the Firefly drone to reach required speeds and fly for up to three minutes—meeting the Air Force’s specifications.

Internally, the Firefly drone is divided into two main sections: the rocket engine and motor components, which are in the UAV’s bottom half; and the electronics, including its payload, avionics, and fight control system, which are safely insulated in the drone’s upper half. The lower half also integrates a pop-out wing and tail which can help with guidance if required.

The innovative 3D printed drone—which is actually something of a hybrid between a rocket and drone—is still being developed by the AeroAstro researchers, who estimate it will be at least another year before the Firefly is ready for flight testing.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Dan wrote at 12/17/2017 5:41:05 AM:


Robert wrote at 12/13/2017 8:19:23 PM:

Man that's cool.

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