Video: 3D printing fully functional micro-drones

10 February 2021

In the past few years 3D printing has been used to fabricate a range of objects from electronic components, aerospace parts, medical supplies, jewelry, toys and more. But now a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has developed a new system to print functional, custom-made drones, devices and robots without human intervention.

The single system uses a three-ingredient recipe that lets users create structural geometry, print traces and assemble electronic components like sensors and actuators.

Called LaserFactory, the system includes a software toolkit that allows users to design custom devices and a hardware platform that fabricates them. The system could be used for makers, developers, engineers and researchers to rapidly prototype things like wearables, robots and printed electronics.

“Making fabrication inexpensive, fast, and accessible to a layman remains a challenge,” said Martin Nisser, a CSAIL PhD student that led the research. “By leveraging widely available manufacturing platforms like 3D printers and laser cutters, LaserFactory is the first system that integrates these capabilities and automates the full pipeline for making functional devices in one system.”

The drone was built

MIT researchers first designed the device using components from a parts library and by drawing circuit traces, which are the copper or aluminum lines on a printed circuit board that allow electricity to flow between electronic components. Then the final drone geometry was put into the 2D editor and the propellers and batteries were placed on the canvas, wired to make electrical connections and the perimeter was drawn to define the quadcopter’s shape.

Users are then able to preview the design before the software translates their custom blueprint into machine instructions. These commands are then embedded into a single fabrication file in the LaserFactory to make the device in one go using standard laser cutter software. The system then automatically cuts the geometry, dispenses silver for circuit traces, picks-and-places components and then it cures the silver to make the traces conductive, securing the components in place to complete the fabrication.

Once completed, the drone is fully functional and can immediately take off to begin a task.

The next steps include improving the quality and resolution of the circuit traces, which would allow for denser and more complex electronics. Researchers also hope to explore how to create a fuller range of 3D geometries, potentially through a traditional 3D printing process.

“Beyond engineering, we’re also thinking about how this kind of one-stop shop for fabrication devices could be optimally integrated into today’s existing supply chains for manufacturing, and what challenges we may need to solve to allow for that to happen,” Nisser said. “In the future, people shouldn’t be expected to have an engineering degree to build robots any more than they should have a computer science degree to install software.”

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