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Transportation The Military Build

3-D Printing Enables UVA Student-Built Unmanned Plane 87

In an effort that took four months and $2000, instead of the quarter million dollars and two years they estimate it would have using conventional design methods, a group of University of Virginia engineering students has built and flown an airplane of parts created on a 3-D printer. The plane is 6.5 feet in wingspan, and cruises at 45 mph. I only wish this had been sponsored by Estes or Makerbot rather than the MITRE Corporation; it would be great for every high school or hobbyist group that can scrape together the printing time to have one of these on demand. (HT to Gaël Duval.)
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3-D Printing Enables UVA Student-Built Unmanned Plane

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  • The engine... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by drosboro ( 1046516 ) on Sunday October 21, 2012 @12:48PM (#41722275)
    Am I reading correctly that even the engine (a turbofan) was built entirely from 3d-printed parts? Now THAT's cool.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Sunday October 21, 2012 @12:57PM (#41722319) Homepage

    The press release is deceptive. They did not build a working turbofan engine with a 3D printer. They built a plastic scale model of a Rolls Royce turbofan engine [stratasys.com] with a Stratasys 3D printer. It will rotate if powered with compressed air. Rolls Royce gave U of VA a $2 million dollar grant which supported that effort.

    The plane itself wasn't printed as one piece. It was more like printing the parts of a plane kit. Very slowly. 80 hour weeks are mentioned. Not sure where the $2000 cost figure comes from, but it doesn't include labor or 3D printer time. Maybe that's just the plastic cost.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      It sounds like the scale model turbofan was where the $2000 number came from, and they say that would have cost $250k to do normally. I assume that means if they'd had the whole thing machined.

      It seems they did the (relatively unimpressive) plane as part of an internship program they got because of that previous project. Yeah. Great. You made a big rc plane in your internship program. That's amazing.

      I agree... crap summary and press release.

    • The press release is deceptive.

      They didn't build a plane either. They built a radio controlled airplane.
      If someone says I built a plane or car or house, I don't think they mean a scale model. The rc plane the spent 80 hours and $2,000+ building could have been bought for a few hundred bucks.

      This press release is complete garbage and I'm disappointed this is on /.

    • 80 hour weeks are mentioned. Not sure where the $2000 cost figure comes from, but it doesn't include labor or 3D printer time.
      They are grad students. labor is free. :-(

    • by Jmc23 ( 2353706 )
      To be fair, the article isn't deceptive. The headline is inaccurate and sensationalist, but have you ever met a headline that wasn't? The only thing that's ambiguous is To make a plastic turbofan engine for those who aren't in the airplane business, engine here not referring to the 'motor' but to the type of plane.
    • by topham ( 32406 )

      As an engineering study of the applicability of printing 3D objects it's somewhat interesting. As to the importance of being able to build an airplane like that for under $2k it's entirely underwhelming. It's pretty easy to make one by hand with a very small collection of components and materials, and it would have taken less time. (So much so that even building a prototype, then dies to pre-cut material to produce the plane more traditionally would have taken less effort).

      • by delt0r ( 999393 )
        My first RC plane was a similar size. Mostly made by hand from balsa wood and foam, with a plywood firewall for the gas engine and fiberglass matt for the wing root. It took me about 3 months to first flight to build. But then i was working, at school and had parties to go to. I would estimate perhaps 100 to 200 hours build time total.

        These days the electric engines look a lot easier to deal with while still having nice performance. The Gas engine was messy with methanol+ 20% oil mix. But then it did giv
        • Yep, the primary advance was LiPo batteries. They weight little enough and can provide enough power, that you can make a lawn mower [youtube.com] fly. In essence, acrobatic model planes don't need -any- lift from their wings, the hull contributing just room for parts and steering, the planes essentially acting as fancy helicopters with vastly overpowered, small rotors.

  • by similar_name ( 1164087 ) on Sunday October 21, 2012 @01:00PM (#41722347)
    3-D Printing Enables UVA student-built UAV
  • So let me see (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Instead of going to a hobby shop to buy a RTF (ready to fly) RC plane kit with remote for about 500$, they spent several times that amount? OK, and where did that 250K$ figure come from? Is this another one of those masturbatory 3D printing stories where a few parts were made by some rapid prototyping technology, all the other parts were bought off the shelf made the nasty old way, but we are led to believe you can 3D print the whole thing?

    And of course, there's never a follow up about how well it performs

    • Re:So let me see (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 21, 2012 @01:30PM (#41722511)

      Baby steps, baby steps. To use a car analogy, we are at the horse and buggy stage of 3D printing. In computers, that would be the i4004 stage. Give it time and personal 3D printers -will- become common and useful.

      I imagine it will be similar to photo printing. Not everyone has a photo printer, some people still upload their images to a photo-finishing place and let them do the printing. But many people can justify owning a photo printer for various reasons (cost, volume, control, etc.).

      • Welcome to the past, can I introduce you to a machine that allows you to manufacture at home at a greatly reduced price items we all need everyday (expect perverts)? Yes, it is the SOWING MACHINE!!! Tada!

        No more reliance on the clothing industry and their child labour practices and outrageous markups, you design your own pattern or use one of the countless free ones available, experiment as much as you want and have your own clothes as you want them, when you want them for a fraction of the price.

        And this A

        • Yes, it is the SOWING MACHINE!!!

          Invented by Jethro Tull. Bet you didn't know that.

          • by MrKaos ( 858439 )

            Yes, it is the SOWING MACHINE!!!

            Invented by Jethro Tull. Bet you didn't know that.

            His flute teacher told him to put his foot down, again and again and again...

        • When a SEWING machine can take 10 hours to make an outfit without much skill or interaction in the process, expect to see a resurgence in SEWING machines.

          • Show me a 3d printer that can create anything remote useful at the press of a button.

            And at the end, you had near robotic sewing machines, capable of being programmed to do all kinds of stuff.

            If you didn't look down on "women's work", you could see some amazing similarities between the idea of 3d printing and making clothes from scratch. But that would mean acknowledging that its appeal is limited. And designer clothes are expensive, an egg holder cup isn't.

            Outside prototyping and repear, I can't see a futu

            • Never under-estimate the stupidity of consumers... I mean, we will probably end up with tassimo style 3d printers that you put in a pod of plastic and end up with forks/straws etc... not because it was a good idea or that tassimo machines make better/easier/cheaper coffees then a real espresso maker... but because consumers are stupid.

            • by Shotgun ( 30919 )

              Cost isn't the issue.
              Buying it isn't the issue.

              Finding it, purchasing it, and then waiting on it is the issue.

              You used to have to go downtown to the theater and take a whole evening to watch a movie.
              The we progressed to going to a video store and browsing for half an hour to find a movie to watch for the evening.
              Now, we sit in our jammies and pick something from the Netflix menu, or maybe choose something from RedBox and pick it up when we make a beer run.

              Being able to download a 3D file, make some adjustme

          • http://www.digsdigs.com/sewing-machine-for-tech-savy-grandma/ [digsdigs.com]

            LCD screens etc.. USB, scanners etc... dude, not everyone is rich, some people even teenagers do make their own stuff. $5 of material can make a $100 dress. There is a resurgence of 'make it yourself' crowd these days.

        • I wouldnt mind a clothes printer, even if it has to tell me by voice, to place each cloth in manually.

          Example for 3d printers would be better if there were a larger library of 3d objects. Like printing a missing jigsaw piece to a puzzle, or printing iphone cases.
          or keys from photos. or ??

      • by Shotgun ( 30919 )

        As further support, I still remember the first computer printer I ever saw. It was as large as an armoir, and shook the building when it printed. The print head looked like it was taken straight from and IBM Selectric typewriter. It took several minutes to print a page, and it ONLY did text.

        That was less than thirty years ago, when very few people even realized that other people had computers in their homes.

        3D printers everywhere are inevitable.

    • Some singularitard will no doubt point out that people in Victorian times thought it was impossible to travel on a railway locomotive at more than 10 mph without suffocating[1], or some other retarded shit. Which apparently proves that anything that was ever thought impossible is not only possible but inevitable.

      [1] This is clearly bollocks anyway, a horse can go much faster than that. Plus winds reach over a hundred mph and people can still breathe.

    • I was surprised that they went with the typical high wing trainer. On the other hand, going with something well known and very reliable was a good idea to verify that they method works.

      Spending $2k on a $500 project does seem silly. Skimming the article, they are mechanical engineering students. It would be more applicable to aeronautical engineering students, to prototype new types of aircraft.

      Judging by the picture, they may have gone a little heavy on the

    • Yea I don't get it either....?

      Military contractors would spend $250K because there would be $250K to spend. (-I am not in that industry, but know something of how it works-)

      There's cheap RC planes already from normal methods, but the best (lightest, strongest) ones are still fiber-oriented composites,,,, that 3D printing still can't do.

      Just a school blowing smoke I suppose.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Looks fairly conventional for an R/C airplane, like you could probably build the same design from mostly balsa and light ply. I would have thought the benefit of 3d printing would have allowed more complex shapes and a bit more optimized structural design. I wonder how the physical characteristics of the material compares to balsa or even fiberglass, and how much time it actually takes to print out and assemble another one now that they have everything worked out.

    • I think that this is more a "proof of concept" for the METHOD, more than it was for making experimental UAVs. Just because it's old hat for you doesn't mean the sponsoring corporation doesn't need testing and trial runs made. This is fantastic for people that need to deal with "empirical data and experience", not theoretical. Theoretical extrapolation of technology won't convince the FAA to let you put your parts on a type-certified aircraft. FAA are mostly old engineers that don't trust new technology unti

      • by MrKaos ( 858439 )

        I think that this is more a "proof of concept" for the METHOD, more than it was for making experimental UAVs.

        Absolutely. They will build thousands of devices using this method, especially being able to transmit parts digitally to the field.

        When you want something built, come see me. If you want correct grammar and spelling, get a F*ing liberal arts student.

        If you would like something built, then you can come and see me. If you would like correct grammar and, spelling then get a fucking liberal arts student.

        Censorship is almost as offensive as political correctness, besides you shouldn't capitalise the F in fucking cause it looks fucking stupid, unless of course you meant 'get Fucking a liberal arts student' in which case it's pro

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So, they spent months and hundreds (thousands?) of manhours to 3-D print an RC airplane that I can buy in kit form made out of balsa wood for $50. No doubt a good project for the students, but nothing groundbreaking. I guess it's fun to use a 3-D printer, but my guess is that this model is heavier and under-performs one made with traditional RC airplane materiel. They would have been a lot more productive using hot wire cutters on EPP with carbon fiber wrap, or regular old balsa wood and Xacto knifes.

    • Actually, I believe the man-hours projecting the thing were *less* than projecting and making the first prototype of a buyable kit that sells for $50.

      And then the production itself not only took minimal man-hours (pour more powder, dust off printed parts, assemble them like LEGO, run more printing overnight). The effort replicating the plane - building a second one - would be VASTLY less than assembly of the $50 kit or toying with hot wire cutters and Xacto knives. Not to mention cost far less than $2k, wit

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...you can build similiar plane with CNC hot wire cutting over weekend for about $100 (including design)....

  • Parts Spec (Score:5, Interesting)

    by chuckymonkey ( 1059244 ) <.charles.d.burton. .at. .gmail.com.> on Sunday October 21, 2012 @01:49PM (#41722619) Journal
    I think it would be interesting for the Maker community to come out with some part specs for this. Think a standard body and motor mounting structure that have interfaces to take different wing configurations, tail configurations, even wheels and whatnot. Kinda like an API for a plane model where you have a few basic standardized parts and you can then print out all manner of different things to try that just basically bolt onto those standards. They could probably do much the same for the quatro/hexa copters as well. Hell, there's probably a ton of applications that would benefit from a library of standard parts that you can build on.
    • by delt0r ( 999393 )
      Unfortunately it mostly wouldn't work. For the inside and perhaps engine it could kinda work. But even then they would have to have the same weight and weight distribution. Airframes need to be fairly well balanced for decent performance. That means the wings need to provide lift at the same place as all the weight is effectively distributed. Thus there is not much you could change without needing to change everything.
  • copyright trolls from commercial airports demand that DRM be placed on 3D printers to prevent people from making these, claiming lost profits
    • Re:Next up.. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by PPH ( 736903 ) on Sunday October 21, 2012 @03:11PM (#41723109)

      No. Next up will be a report from MITRE showing how a UAV can be built cheaply and what its capabilities for combat or surveillance are. As a result, 3-D printers and related technology will be placed on lists of export restricted equipment. And lists of people who own or attempt to purchase listed equipment will be turned over to the FBI for further scrutiny.

    • They just had that article about a week or so ago, where something nice from a 3d printer got locked up by the car companies.

  • The shape of many of today's planes has a lot to do with buildability. This is a great start, but I hope once they a happy with the printing, they move on to more creative plane designs. To those asking "why", the correct answer is to learn. Baby steps.
  • by sirwired ( 27582 ) on Sunday October 21, 2012 @02:29PM (#41722845)

    To be blunt, the MakerBot is a "toy" 3D printer, capable of producing nothing more than small, low-quality, toys. It's imprecise and produces rather crude pieces. It's not bad for a build-it-yourself kit, and the price isn't bad at all, but as far as 3D printers go overall... well, you get what you pay for. The build platform is small, the tolerances poor, and the finished pieces rather rough.

    You can make some REALLY nice stuff with 3D printing. You can't with the MakerBot. To see what's really possible, check out shapeways.com The stuff there (user-submitted designs printed on professional printers) is light-years ahead of the MakerBot. I, myself, got the world's best D&D dice there, printed with Stainless Steel and a bronze finish.

    • I, myself, got the world's best D&D dice there, printed with Stainless Steel and a bronze finish.

      Sums up the scope for mass-market applications of 3D printing really... upgrade to professional equipment and get small, HIGH-quality toys!

      • Touche...

        In all seriousness, you have it about right. 3D printing is still only good for things that can exist in isolation. Once one thing has to fit with another to tight tolerances, it's rough going... At best, 3D printed tolerances are a couple centuries behind modern tooling. That said, things are advancing rapidly.

        However, the output of a MakerBot is so poor, it'd make the most ham-handed 18th century mold-maker hang his head in shame... although he'd be green with envy at how fast it can produce

  • So, for $2000 did they include weapons hardpoints?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Alright, somebody help me here. Please?

    Other than the involvement of a very expensive 3D printer, what's the big deal? At $2000 this thing is hugely expensive. Especially when you consider that the $2000 does not seem to include labor hours or printer time.

    Meanwhile, Hobby King has almost ready to fly trainers of similar size and design for $210 [hobbyking.com].

    So, what is the point? What is so great about this, other than personal accomplishment and a 3D printer?

    • Simple... it's because just like powered flight in the early 20th century meant we would eventually all be driving flying cars everywhere, the development of a hands-free, any-geometry manufacturing process means we will soon be 3D printing all our material needs at home faster than they can be distributed to us from centres of mass manufacture.
  • From TFA:

    It achieved a cruising speed of 45 mph and is only the third 3-D printed plane known to have been built and flown.

    So.....not really news then is it

  • by hduff ( 570443 )

    I though UVA was supposed to be a party school. They do actual science there? Who knew?

  • Someone should immediately notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and 3D Printing.
  • Their design looks like they really just took an existing model, and sliced it up to be printable. Not really all that impresive, personally.

    http://www.geekosystem.com/3d-printing-plane/ [geekosystem.com]

    That one is from two years ago, and more interesting.

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel