Using 3D Printing for Unmanned Aerial Systems

Matt Trani is the co-owner of Vertical Vision, an unmanned aerial systems company that goes above and beyond the normal scope of hobbyist remote controlled and/or unmanned vehicles.

Putting it all Together, With the Help of 3D

3D Printed Unmanned Aerial System
The Scout is made up mainly of 3D printed parters, as well as a circuit board and carbon fiber tubes.

“I didn’t have any 3D printing experience before I started my company,” admits Trani. “Actually, being introduced to 3D printing was a large part of what allowed me to start the company. I have an office at Saint Louis University, where I had the opportunity to engage with SLU students who showed me how to use AutoDesk programs.” It was after learning 3D design that Trani knew that with the help of 3D printing, his dream could become a reality. “I realized that using this technology, I could make my idea of creating unmanned aerial systems (UAS) a reality, at little cost.”

Now, through his company Vertical Vision, Trani is able to sell UAS’s that are largely made of 3D-printed parts. “I 3D print everything. The arms are carbon fiber tubes, but all of the red and black pieces that look plastic are 3D printed. More than 60% of the UAS is made from parts printed on the Afinia,” explains Trani. “We have found 3D printing to be useful for other projects, too, like making parts to hold equipment in place.”

Multi-purpose Design

Fire Rescue workers watch the Scout during a test flight
Fire Rescue workers watch the Scout during a test flight

“The Scout took us two years of testing and development to make it to market – which was much faster than it would have taken without 3D printing prototypes. It has a flight time between 16 and 22 minutes, and is capable of being used to inspect buildings and utility lines, collect weather data, monitor traffic, map and survey land, provide agricultural support, or assist in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR),” lists Trani. “It’s very multi-faceted. For example, in precision agriculture, farmers can use the Scout to fly over their crops, and using a variety of different sensors, it can sense nitrogen or H20, or monitor the health of crops. Engineering companies can use it to survey land or look at a construction site. They can even be used in real estate to get exterior shots of the house.”

In Case of Emergency

The Scout carries an unpackaged life jacket during a test flight
The Scout carries an unpackaged life jacket during a test flight

Even though the Scout has many functions, Trani is very focused on its use in first responder work. “Missouri is high risk for tornados and floods,” reports Trani. “The Scout enables responders to see what they are up against at a moment’s notice, and disseminate information to anyone else who is needed.”

“After Katrina, some companies came out with life jackets that are in a plastic tube, and when the tubes hit the water, the C02 cartridge activates and automatically inflates. What fire departments aim to do during the event of a flood, is use the Scout, or similar devices, to fly these packaged life vests out to victims. The use of ABS plastic is perfect for this, since it is a very strong, yet light, material.”

Choosing the Afinia 3D Printer

“Saint Louis University has four or five different 3D printers. Every time I saw them, they were all broken, with the exception of the Afinia. This could be that the students don’t necessarily have the training for how to use the 3D printers,” Trani recounts, “but it was clear that the Afinia H480 was the most robust of the printers, and the students were always in line to print prototypes out on them.”

“They had more expensive machines that are great, too,” comments Trani, “but the Afinia is just as capable. I was incredibly excited when H800 came out. I didn’t want to go through the pain of setting up a finicky printer, and much to my delight, the H800 is a ‘plug and play’ – just like the H480. It is set up in no time.”

Trani notes that both the H480 and H800 have been working very well for him. “I’m really pleased with these printers. They really come in handy,” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at without the Afinia H480 and H800 3D printers. They are cranking out parts left and right. And the H800 is fantastic. It’s much bigger, so I can print off 3x the amount of parts in one shot. It’s a game changer for me.”