Researchers Create 3D Printed Morphing Composites Drone

A team at CMASLab collaborated with the ETH Spin-off 9T Labs to develop and manufacture a 3D printed morphing composite drone. The drone uses morphing for roll, pitch, and yaw control on the main wing and the empennage. After verifying the structure with static tests, a flight test was performed, showing the high manoeuvrability of the drone.

Master’s student Leo Baumann, in collaboration with the ETH spin-off 9T Labs, investigated the possibility to 3D print lightweight and selectively compliant composite structures. With the supervision of the doctoral students Dominic Keidel and Urban Fasel, the team developed a wing with a continuous skin and a morphing structure, which has highly adaptive and aerodynamically efficient control surfaces reducing the aerodynamic drag.

To proof the structural performance of the morphing wing, and to analyse the flight characteristics of the aircraft, the team developed a morphing composite drone. To achieve the desired trade-off between stiffness and compliance, they used a 3D printer developed by 9T Labs, which enables the manufacturing of parts consisting of both plastics and carbon composites. All structural components of the drone were created using 3D printing technology, with the exception of the wing skin and electronics. The manufacturing process and the flight tests can be found in the Journal of “Manufacturing Letters”.

The advantage of the 3D printed manufacturing methods is that the carbon fibres can be aligned to achieve the desired characteristics of the part. By aligning the fibres with the load paths, the properties of the material are optimally exploited. By printing complex geometries with less waste material, the parts could be manufactured at a lower cost compared to conventional manufacturing methods. The printing process is repeatable and easily adaptable, which allows multiple iterations of a part and fast fabrication of spare components.

The drone was manufactured in individual components, with the main structural parts of the wing, fuselage and V-​Tail being printed on the 3D printer. The lattice structure of the wing was then covered with a thin skin. This combination of a load-​carrying internal structure and the aerodynamically smooth surface leads to an efficient, lightweight aircraft. Both the plastics and composite parts are based on thermoplastic materials, which enables the reheating and welding of the structure. This could be used to assembly the final structure without requiring any additional adhesive.

Both the wing and the V-​Tail relies on the same morphing concept to achieve control around the pitch, roll, and yaw axes. The control surfaces on the wing are actuated by eight servo motors, which enable a maximum trailing edge deflection of 48mm. By individually controlling the deflection of each motor, the lift along the span can be varied, reducing the structural loads and potentially increasing the efficiency of the drone.

A three-minute maiden flight showed ample control of the aircraft through morphing. Not only the main wing, but also the V-​tail performed excellently, achieving full control around the roll, pitch, and yaw axis. Different manoeuvres, including barrel rolls and loopings, could be flown, showcasing the versatility of the aircraft.

9TLabs has recently closed a seed financing round of $ 4.3 million to finish the development of their industrial 3D printing solution and scale-up the first mass manufacturing industrial use cases.