With the advent of 3D printing technology and home printers becoming more and more affordable, drones are just the next hot item to join the 3D printing craze. You can print almost an entire drone from scratch, needing few additional electronic components; all you need to do is download a template or create your own, feed it into the machine, and watch your drone parts grow. Even the military is looking to 3D print drones – but why would you want to?

First, What Is a 3D Printer?

3D printers aren’t quite printers the way you think of them, even if they use the same principles as an inkjet printer. An inkjet printer layers ink from a cartridge onto paper at various quantities and depths to create an image in grayscale or color, mixing quantities and density to achieve various hues of color or tints of gray.

A 3D printer uses fill matter – which can be plastic, resin, metal, nylon, glass, or many other substances – to extrude onto a surface in layers. Rather than creating a 2D image, the 3D printer layers over and over again to build a three-dimensional object according to designs and blueprints programmed into the device. Look at it as “painting” a three-dimensional object onto thin air, one layer at a time. Some 3D printers in the medical industry can even use organic matter to create 3D-printed, functioning organs many have proposed for use in organ transplant and surgery.

So a 3D Printer Can Print a Complete Item of Anything I Want?

Sometimes, but not always. It depends on the complexity of the item and whether it requires metal or electronic parts. For example, if you wanted to print a plastic mug, you could print that all in one piece, even with raised designs on it. However, if you wanted to print something more complex like a microwave, you might have a bit more trouble.

You could print many of the components, but you would have to assemble them yourself – and certain parts, like internal bulbs and heating elements, might have to be purchased separately and installed. Some high-end 3D printers are capable of printing metal components that can be used in electronics, and even printing circuit boards – but those might not be commercially accessible to the casual user.

Okay, So What Is a Drone?
3d printed drone

A drone is anything that can qualify as an aircraft and be piloted remotely without a pilot actually occupying the vehicle. While you may often think of drones as military strike aircraft, in truth, even your old-school RC helicopters qualified as drone vehicles long before we were calling them that. 

Personal use drones now tend to be quadcopters – light frameworks in a square or rectangular design that lift themselves on four propellers. Many have experimented with alternate drone designs, though, with as few as two or as many as eight propellers.

Reasons for 3D Printing a Drone

Here are just a few reasons for why you’d want to 3D print your own drone:

  • It’s cheaper. You may end up paying a bit for the initial outlay to own a 3D printer, but once you do, you can print all kinds of items for pennies on the dollar – not just drones. Your only costs are operating costs for power and filler materials used to actually make the 3D extruded items. You may end up paying for premium templates if you want to access them, but there are plenty of free ones available online.
  • You have room to experiment. Change your colors, change your materials, change your designs – as many times as you want. Every 3D printed drone you make can be a prototype or the final model; being able to fully 3D print new parts or an entire drone makes it much easier to experiment with new design concepts. You may even make new discoveries in aerodynamics, considering the difficulty of making workable propellers on a 3D printer.
  • It’s repeatable. If you want to create an entire army of drones, you can. Drones, by the way, are very fragile; they have to be to be lightweight enough to both lift and maneuver with such small propellers. Drone parts can snap easily, and if you’ve ever crashed a drone, you know how easy it is to completely total one. With 3D printing, you don’t have to worry about destroying an extremely expensive off-the-shelf drone. Destroy your lightweight, highly-customizable, extremely cheap 3D printed drone instead, then salvage the electronic parts for re-use and make another one in very short order. Or, you know, make your drone army and take over your neighbourhood. We’re not judging. (Don’t send your drones after us. Really. We’re not judging.)
  • It’s fun. You get to feel like an engineer, practically – and can entertain yourself for hours trying different configurations or just printing and painting your parts, if you don’t already print them in the colors you want. When you’re done, you have something you can play with for hours, whether you’re test-driving or figuring out how to use a webcam to feed data back from your drone. Or, you could just dive-buzz the neighbor’s dog. Just don’t actually hurt them; be kind to pets.
  • It’s educational. Building 3D printed drones teaches you about aerodynamics, engineering, 3D printing, reading blueprints, and more. Even for yourself, it’s a great educational activity, but it can also be fun to do with kids – whether you’re a parent or teacher. Drone printing and assembly stimulates the mind with complex logistical and technical problems, and the attention required to assemble multiple small components into something that works without crashing and burning is useful as well. Though even crashing and burning is a learning experience, you figure out what went wrong and adapt your design to try again.
  • It’s useful. Drones can be more than just fun toys. You can use them to police the perimeter of your home, gather newsworthy information (just don’t spy on your neighbors without consent), investigate potentially unsafe scenarios from a distance, and much more. Photographers and videographers can use drones to capture difficult shots and record footage of nature, traffic, city skylines, and many other subjects. Instruments can even be affixed to drones to gather information such as barometric data for meteorology.
How to 3D Print a Drone
drone propeller

3D printing a drone is surprisingly easy – as we’ve made clear already. To do it, you just need to:

  • Own a 3D printer. They’re so ubiquitous now you can get one same-day for a few hundred bucks on Amazon. Just make sure you buy one that has high ratings and is large enough to print the drone components that you need. Some smaller “toy” 3D printers can only handle tiny things like buttons and pins.
  • Buy the appropriate fill materials. Filler often comes as lightweight beads the 3D printer can melt or otherwise dissolve into a liquid form that it then extrudes smoothly into the desired shape. For a drone, you’ll want a lightweight plastic or resin; something durable but not too heavy. Think about bird bones and how they’re hollow so birds can maintain flight without their bodyweight dragging them down; your drone needs to be lightweight but tough for the same reasons.
  • Download a schematic. Tons of online sites offer free schematics for drones, including instructions on what parts you’ll need to buy.
  • Follow the instructions to purchase components such as wiring, motors, and other electronic parts. These parts can’t be 3D printed and need to be bought separately. Use the recommended brands and components to make sure your drone will function after the parts are assembled.
  • Load the schematic into your 3D printer. The printers usually let you download blueprints and save them, then select them from the interface.
  • Program the 3D printer to extrude the components of your drone using the schematic. You may have to do it in manual stages, or you may be able to leave the printer to handle each stage on its own with a few moments to clear away one component to make room for the next. Your drone won’t come out complete, but as a series of parts you can put together like Lego blocks.
  • Assemble your drone parts. Once you have all the required parts, follow the instructions with the schematic to assemble your drone parts into a working drone. Fire it up, test it out, and take it for a spin to see how it works. And if you crash and burn? Modify your schematics and try again.

A Few Words of Caution

Many areas have very restrictive laws regarding drone use, particularly in residential neighborhoods. Because drones are so new and have yet to receive as much attention as they potentially could regarding regulations and standards, many municipalities choose to ban them altogether for safety reasons until such point when appropriate time can be spent deciding on necessary laws governing drone use. Be aware of the drone laws and regulations in your area, before you find your drone confiscated and the police at your door.


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