Sneak peek of a 3D printed, compact and portable drone

Nov.4, 2014 | By Alec

Drones and 3D printing technology seem to be a perfect fit, something that can easily be illustrated by the large number of home-made drones and quadcopters we come across. Take a look, for instance, at the Hovership and this do-it-yourself 3D printed quadcopter.

The idea behind all of these is simple: why not 3D print a few parts in plastic, attach some wiring and a camera, and make myself a cool flying robot? And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! It perfectly illustrates the do-it-yourself creative potential this technology has.

And drones, through their unprecedented and futuristic ability to grant aerial perspectives, are an awesome thing to create. But there are a few negative elements to these flying robots as well, that make them quite unpractical. Specifically, their sheer size, awkward shapes, high prices, complicated electronics and an absolute reliance on support equipment. While great toys for in your backyard, their this makes them wholly unsuitable for any area that can’t be reached by car.

But this is also exactly what makes the work of the brothers behind Backcountry Drones so interesting. They’re currently working on a promising and cool-looking drone that is portable, compact, light-weight and autonomous: perfect for practical and harsh environments. As they stated, their mission is to develop a product that compliments the practical size of drone technology. ‘This requires a drone which is reliable, easy to use and can live its life moving from car seat to equipment bag and back again.’

As Nate from Backcountry Drones explained, this whole process started when the two brothers moved to Arizona for their work. ‘We had always enjoyed New England’s beautiful forests and top notch climbing destinations, so the idea of being surrounded by the craggy mountains and winding canyons of the southwest was too good to pass up. One particular destination that caught our attention was Granite Mountain in Prescott AZ, a 500 ft cliff of Proterozoic granite surround by low laying shrubs, conifers and junipers.’

However, they soon discovered that the inhospitable terrain of Arizona can be a maze of sorts as well. The first two attempts to climb this cliff ended in failure, as the afternoon monsoons began gathering before they could start climbing. Eventually they succeeded in their mission, and ‘ once at the top there was a realization. Looking back down over the approach from 500 ft above, the access trail was obvious. The bird’s eye view clearly showed a long meandering path unobstructed by boulders or spiny shrubs leading right from the hiking trail to the base of the climb.’

They realized that what they needed was a drone compact and tough enough to be stuffed in an equipment bag along with rope and water bottles. One that can be operated without additional specialty equipment, that is capable of working autonomously. And this is how plans for the First Ascent drone were born.

After several months of designing, testing and prototyping, they developed the compact aeroshell drone you can see above. Equipped with a GPS receiver, amongst others, this droid is capable of safe and autonomous outdoor flights and perfect for any excursion. ‘Designed to be hand launched and run autonomously, the First Ascent is capable of quickly ascending to several hundred feet where it can capture an aerial image of your surroundings before returning.’

The First Ascent features a compact body and simple design, which is made possible thanks to its co-axial configuration. ‘It requires just two motors and speed controllers which reduces the total size, weight and complexity compared to traditional multirotors. Additionally, the co-axial design allows the drone’s components in be located along a central shaft where they are easily protected by an outer aerodynamic shell.’

All this makes the First Ascent a very promising, sturdy and very useful droid with a ton of practical applications. After all, its basic concept could also be used for a host of other drone designs. For now, however, it’s still in a state of transition. While they have a fully functional prototype, this one is still too large and bulky to take into production.

A smaller version is still under construction. And for this, they are turning to 3D printing. Not only does this bring obvious prototyping advantages to the table, it will also greatly speed up development. The idea is that this smaller version will be pre-programmed with a few different missions it could autonomously run and would be highly reliable and damage resistant. This, they believe, will be a consumer ready product in some four to six months.

Once successful, the next version of the First Ascent would phase out the 3D printed parts and move to injection-modeled, impact resistant plastics to provide more durability. They are also working on a mobile app to allow for better programming and controlling. This final level will hopefully be reached after an additional six to eight months.

And to make this very cool and very practical 3D printed prototype a product fit for consumers, they are turning to crowdfunding. This will hopefully gather enough funds to realize the remaining development stages and enabling proper testing. After all, it’s a product that needs to be reliable even in the inhospitable wilderness, and that isn’t cheap.

While they are still assessing the costs and a realistic timeline behind the First Ascent, a Kickstarter for this very cool and very practical 3D printed drone will be launched soon. Keep an eye out for it!

Check out this short clip on the concept of the First Ascent:



Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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