Rapid prototyping is the quick fabrication of components or assemblies from 3D computer-aided designs (CAD). The parts are usually fabricated using 3D printing techniques, also known as additive manufacturing.
3D printing can be used to make bespoke parts for an otherwise off-the-shelf drone, or to make a proof-of-concept design that can be used for testing and early detection of potential faults or issues. Due to the quick turnaround of 3D printing, it can be used to accelerate design-to-production cycles.
Making changes to traditionally-moulded UAV airframe or component designs can be costly and time-consuming, as a new mould may have to be constructed. Addictive manufacturing requires no mould, so changing the design and printing a new iteration of a component can be done in a matter of hours.
Rapid prototyping using 3D printing also allows designs that would have to be traditionally moulded in separate parts to be printed as one, reducing weight and complexity as well as the need for fasteners and connectors.
Almost any component of an unmanned aerial system can be 3D printed, including airframes, propellers, landing gears, motor and accessory mounts, battery compartments and protective housings. Prototype drone designs have been developed that are fully 3D printable other than the electronics and payloads.
The speed of printing and relative portability of some 3D printers also allows components to be fabricated in the field, allowing military and other users in remote locations to perform repairs or adjust designs for different missions without needing to wait for external resupply.
3D prototyping can be performed with a variety of plastics and composite materials. Material choice for 3D printing drones may need to take into account compression, bending, stretching and resistance to impact and extremes of temperature. Certain materials may also make it easier to produce complex structures such as honeycombs that may provide strength or weight-reduction advantages.