Researchers show the possibilities of 3-D printing with a military-grade drone that can be tweaked on the go.

Photo Credit: University of Virginia

Photo Credit: University of Virginia

A team of researchers from the University of Virginia have taken 3-D printing to the next level by creating a UAV drone for the Department of Defense. About the size of a remote-controlled plane, the drone can easily be tweaked for specific missions and printed out in just over a day, costing $2,500. The parts are off-the-shelf and its brain is an Android phone.

“We weren’t sure you could make anything lightweight and strong enough to fly,” project leader David Sheffler told Wired.

The original prototype (as seen in the below video) was based on a conventional radio-controlled (RC) plane made of balsa wood, which is both lighter and stronger than the ABS plastic used by the university's 3-D printers. If the same plane was made of plastic, it would weigh five times as much as the wood aircraft.

“You’re printing out of a material that’s really not well-suited to making an airplane,” Sheffler said, adding that building drones in layers with a 3-D printer led to structural weaknesses.

The team reworked the design by shaping the entire aircraft as one wing. Called the Razor, the latest prototype was made of nine printed parts that can be assembled together like LEGO blocks. At the center is one piece with a removable hatch for access to the inner cargo bay, which is where all the drone's electronics stay.

Razor runs with a Google Nexus 5 smartphone with a custom-designed avionics app to control the plane. An RC-plane autopilot manages the controls surfaces with input from the phone.

The drone has a four-foot wingspan and weights just 1.8 pounds. When loaded with the electronic gear, it weights under 6 pounds, which allows it to fly at 40 mph for up to 45 minutes. The team is currently trying to increase this to an hour.

It can carry an additional 1.5 pounds, which is ideal for attaching a camera. Batteries recharge in two hours, but can also easily be switched out to allow for almost continuous fly. The Razor can be manually controlled from up to a mile away, or it can fly on its own with preloaded GPS points.

Each drone takes 31 hours to be made with materials that cost $800. With the electronics, it costs about $2,500. At this price and efficiency, variations of this drone can easily be printed to fit the user needs, such as making it faster, slower, or equipped with a sensor. If one drone crashes and dies, another can easily be made to replace it.

“3-D printing is at the phase where personal computers were in the 1980s,” Sheffler said. “The technology is almost unbounded.”

The team's research contract has expired, but they are hoping for a new one next year.