Elevating Drone Design

Hayley Everett

Hayley Everett speaks to a UAV design expert to discover how 3D printing is enabling greater design freedom and flexibility for industrial drones

Although the military and defence potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is currently a hot topic – due in no small part to their deployment throughout past and ongoing conflicts such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine – drones are also becoming increasingly essential for many engineering sectors. Within industries such as mining, power generation and oil and gas, for instance, drones are replacing humans for a whole host of tasks ranging from surveyance and monitoring to inspection and photography.

One technology that is considerably advancing the design and development of such drones is 3D printing, or additive manufacturing. Not only is the technology enabling engineers to design customisable components that are lighter and less expensive to manufacture, but it is also helping them to considerably speed up their design and production processes. As a result, the deployment of drones within industrial settings is ramping up, as is the realisation of new and advanced applications for UAVs.

An expert in this area Clogworks Technologies, which specialises in the design and manufacture of UAVs. The firm uses 3D printing technology for the prototyping and production of its modular, multi-rotor Dark Matter Drone, which is used by customers for a range of aerial surveying, inspection, security, surveillance and delivery applications.

According to founder and CEO Peter Opdam, leveraging additive manufacturing within the design process has given Clogworks’ engineers greater freedom and flexibility to meet customer requirements, while also delivering sizeable efficiency gains.

So what prompted Clogworks to first invest in additive manufacturing? “We wanted to be able to create the CAD, do all the research and development and create a high-end product almost entirely in-house,” explains Opdam. “And over the years, we’ve gained the people and equipment that allow us to make even better products. 3D printing is something I looked at many years ago, and now it’s an integral part of our product development.

“We have several systems that we use to create our products with great success, and what makes it interesting for us is the fact that we can design something, set the 3D printers going and pull the parts off the printer. We can see changes really quickly, make bespoke parts and we don’t have to wait for any third party to produce parts for us. So that’s really been the idea of the entire company.”

From Concept To Real-World

According to Opdam, the essential elements of Clogworks’ design process begin with the theoretical. “We start off with the basic idea and crunch the numbers on the basis of simulations and real-life data collection, and then we start designing. Using SolidWorks, we can run additional simulations and once the individual design of parts starts to formalise itself, we can begin producing iterations,” he says.

“The advantage of doing this and having expertise in these areas is that it informs and affects the way that you design your products. It’s no good designing something on the premise that you can just 3D print everything, it’s more like a jigsaw whereby all the parts and individual components get designed with maximum performance, strength and robustness in mind.”

In terms of specific machines and materials used at Clogworks, Opdam reveals, “We have a Markforged Mark 2 3D printer that we use literally flat out, it never stops printing. We spend around two thirds of the day on research and development and then we run the printer overnight to produce the parts, which works very well for us. We particularly like Markforged’s Onyx carbon fibre filament, which can make a big difference in terms of the rigidity and strength of components such as brackets and braces.”

He adds, “What we find with the Mark 2 is the print quality is excellent, and the finish on the printed parts is very good. A company such as ours needs constant feedback during the design process and by printing parts – particularly those that have special requirements – on the Mark 2, we have the ability to immediately change and alter the design when required. This is where the technology is priceless.”

Design benefits of 3d printing

When asked how 3D printing has benefited Clogworks’ design process, Opdam says that, “It’s like gaining an extra few people during the design process. The ability to continuously print new design iterations gives us greater capacity and capability while also leaving our engineers free for other tasks. Whereas with the CNC machine we need someone constantly there to operate it, this isn’t the case with the 3D printer.

“Additionally, although CNCs are very good for producing large quantities of identical parts, the downside is that a lot of resources are needed to run the machine, change over the passes and so on. If you’re looking to make small numbers of parts, CNC is not particularly suited to this. Making small, lightweight parts is also difficult. However, what we’ve found with the Markforged is that we can set the printer going overnight printing 15 or so of the parts we need, and we can take them straight off the printer the next morning to assemble our drones.”

He observes that, “This makes a big difference to us as it frees up the CNC for other jobs, and having in-depth knowledge of the strengths and limitations of both these technologies benefits the way we design our parts and schedule the entire production process. Also, when we get to a stage where the printer can’t keep up with the number of parts we need, we have the option of buying another machine to increase our capacity.”

With regard to 3D printing’s role in aiding the design process for drones used in industrial applications, Opdam believes that bespoke solutions are the key to success here. He says: “We make enterprise drones for companies and large organisations across the world that use them for a range of different applications, such as surveyors who conduct infrastructure mapping. Various applications in the oil and gas sector is another example. Without fail, all of our customers are looking for something bespoke and tailor-made, not something off-the-shelf.

“The in-house capability of additive manufacturing really comes into play when our customers require specific payloads, such as floating platforms or sensors. The technology allows us to create customised components with very specific requirements, enabling us to design nicely integrated products that solve problems for our customers. This also goes hand-in-hand with additional materials, which could be metals, carbon fibre and so on.”

Looking Ahead

How does Opdam see the future of drone design changing? “For us, I see a greater reliance on and use of 3D printing. We will always continue with carbon fibre, but really, we need to think how we integrate it with metal. Both have their strengths and this is an area where I see great potential going forwards from a design point of view.

“Generally, I think there is a greater role for the technology, because it allows us to design with more freedom and complexity. For me, the attraction of drones is that they are essentially flying computers, so how we can integrate AI, computer programming and other technologies on board is fascinating. Additive manufacturing has allowed us to make parts we would never have been able to make, and with the technology continuously improving and the drone sector evolving so rapidly, I see one feeding the other.”