How 3D printing and DIY drone community are changing perceptions.
We will be attending the EAA Airventure Live convention in Oshkosh this week. So as this week will be all about wings, we thought we would look into one of our top growing communities of flying makers, the DIY drone community, and share their story with you.
“I’ll be back!”
The Terminator, 1984
We all know that line from the movie. And as we are seeing more forms of artificial intelligence and other robotic incarnations, science fiction and the media want us to believe that the Terminator  will indeed be back soon. One of the most reproved and misunderstood of these robots are probably Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, as they are more commonly known. But what no one is showing us is that this technology is not being molded by some dark overlord like “Skynet ”, but more likely by the hobbyist with a 3D printer next door. Embracing the “Maker Movement” and open source development, 3D printing and personal drone communities are bringing together two industries that are growing bigger than the sum of their parts.
“Disruptive technology” is a term coined by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen describing an emerging technology that significantly alters the landscape and creates a completely new industry around it. The web, cloud computing, cell phones, MP3s, and Wi-Fi are all examples of disruptive technologies that we probably cannot live without in today’s world.
Both drones and 3D printing are considered disruptive technologies and together will radically change our perception of both drone technology and the use of 3D printing. So just what makes them work so well together – 3D printed drones? Well, yes, this is definitely being done, but it is not the real game-changer. Let’s first inoculate the perception we have of UAV technology and then bring in the alchemy of 3D printing.
UAVs are flown remotely with no one onboard. This allows the pilot the safety of not being airborne and also dramatically improves the visibility and reach of the pilot as UAVs can go where manned airborne vehicles often cannot. The UAV uses computers, sensors, cameras , and GPS to locate itself and feeds back data to the pilot, which could include its position, the terrain, the conditions, and video footage around it.
Probably the most common use of UAVs is for film. The recent Winter Games in Sochi would not have been as dramatic if we did not have the drone’s eye view of the skier in midair. UAVs are not only cheaper than aerial photography from a helicopter, but they can also come much closer and stay close due to their speed. In the US, using UAVs for commercial filming purposes is illegal, but it does not stop amateur filmmakers from shooting some of the most breathtaking and brazen footage currently to be found on the web. Digital cameras such as the GoPro are attached to the drone and then the only thing stopping you from soaring with the eagles is battery life and range.
There have also been a couple of more playful uses suggested such as UAVs delivering pizza, beer, and your online store orders. But it is not all fun and games; UAVs are also put to work. They allow scientists to explore weather, farmers to inspect their crops or stock, and they enable rescue missions to find missing people and deliver provisions in disaster areas.
Now, let us add 3D printing to the drone mix, or we could probably just 3D print a drone. University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Center (AMRC) has produced a UAV that can be printed and in the air in 24 hours. Without 3D printing, the same drone would take 120 hours to produce, there would be material waste, and there wouldn’t be options to print one or many. This same team is also researching disposable 3D printed drones that could be created inexpensively and be in the air on a mission, whether for surveillance or rescue, within 24 hours.
So there we have drones and 3D printed drones, but now we can take this to next dimension: 3D printing drones. Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Lab has developed a “robotic quadcopter that can extrude polyurethane foam while in flight.” The researchers are hoping that this drone could potentially fill holes that need patching or build completely new structures in unreachable locations.
Aerospace company BAE Systems predicts that by 2040 we’ll have airplanes with sophisticated 3D printers onboard that can 3D print UAVs on demand and to scope. So soon we will have flying 3D printers printing 3D printed drones that can 3D print. This is probably not what they refer to as a feedback loop in technology, but it comes pretty close.
However the real alchemy (or disruptive innovation) of 3D printing in the world of UAVs is neither the scientific inventions nor the futuristic possibilities, but rather lies within the rapidly growing DIY community of both UAV and 3D printing enthusiasts.
They have formed a participatory partnership that supports each other’s ideas, shares research, actively contributes, offers mentorship, and most importantly relinquishes ownership. This model of community-led research and development is not new, but it has never been in such control of an entire industry’s future.
A pioneer in this regard is Chris Anderson, who quit his job as editor and chief of the revered Wired magazine to join a then 20-year-old Jordi Muñoz, with whom he had only communicated via email to start 3D Robotics, the leading personal UAV manufacturer. Anderson is also a fervent backer of 3D printing and expounds the idea of a new industrial revolution in his book Makers, about a movement started by people who are once again taking design and development into their own hands. In particular, he refers to 3D printing that makes manufacturing faster and more accessible.
Before Anderson started 3D Robotics, he had a personal interest in UAVs. A couple of failed attempts at impressing his children with a homemade drone led him to start a community of amateur tinkerers of the UAV persuasion so they could share their findings in this relatively new field and also commiserate on their failings. “By building a team in public,” he says, “you build communities first and open source them, you do not have to find the right people. They find you.”
Anderson started DIYDrones.com in 2007, and the community currently has over 55 thousand contributing members and with approximately 1,000 new personal drones being launched every month, this community is flying high.
At about the same time that Anderson was starting DIY Drones, another company had its own story of success in a skeptical market: Shapeways. This company originated in an incubator within Dutch conglomerate Philips. And Shapeways itself is something of an incubator — a 3D printing marketplace that allows for others to make a business out of the work they produce. Community members are given free reign to upload any 3D printed file to the Shapeway’s website, 3D print in a myriad of materials and colors using Shapeways’ industrial printers and then use the infrastructure to host their own online stores and manage the logistics.
3D printing is a natural fit for the drone community because of the relatively new and unexplored nature of both industries. UAVs would not be developing so quickly if it weren’t for 3D printers and their ability to rapidly prototype and produce the variety of modifications and additions that are needed for things like camera attachments and battery cases for extended flying time. As soon as a new use is defined for a drone, they can immediately test or manufacture it. And in turn, there’s a whole new market and community for the 3D printing industry.
Shapeways has an active relationship with its own community as well. The suggestions and feedback from the community of Shop Owners and Shoppers are regularly addressed not only through dialogue but also by being implementing into development strategies for its online platforms and production facilities. It was also in these community dialogues (together with clear evidence of its booming sales reports) that Shapeways realized what was once considered a niche hobby began turning into a full-blown disruptive force in the marketplace. Drone bodies, modification and drone accessories, have become a significant portion of its current shop owner stock and sales.
When you search through the Shop Owners on Shapeways.com, you can see that they are clearly part of this participatory and global community. D3wey, a designer from the UK, asks for feedback on all his products to improve the quality and he proudly states that his designs are more for fun than for profit. He produces everything from GoPro attachments to the battery doors that allow bigger batteries and personalization like dragon or skull designs.
Another active community member, Simensays, produces spare parts, camera equipment, landing gear, and compass mounts to name but a few. These DIY drone enthusiast are clearly more interested in making interesting videos, tracking their extreme sports adventures, or just good old-fashion showboatery than any of the other concerns we might have around drones.
The DIY drone community alone flies more drones than the total number of US military drones at present. Thus the power to ‘demilitarize and democratize‘ the development of UAVs really lies in the hands of the DIY drone community. Inside these communities everyone is a moderator that can encourage good behavior, discipline bad behavior, contest legal decisions, and build software or hardware together. And for the first time, there is communal intellectual property which all own and protect.
And herein lies the true alchemy: every single member of the DIY drone community has a team of 55,000 peaceful and fun-loving inventors, scientist, homemakers, engineers, teachers, and artists—to name but a few—behind them, that are all building and industry with everyone’s best interests at heart. To top this, with the power of 3D printing they also have their own manufacturing plant and from here, the sky really is the limit.