A Virginia Tech undergraduate student team is developing a project born in sci-fi movies: a 3D-printing system capable of autonomously creating drones that could fly away as soon as their fabrication is complete. The team’s work is on its way to becoming nonfiction, as they have been chosen by NASA to receive one of four 2021 awards nationwide that advance new aeronautics technologies.

The Virginia Tech team won an initial award of $75,000 from NASA’s University Student Research Challenge, a competition that encourages students in higher education to propose new ideas and concepts relevant to the work of NASA. Student teams from accredited colleges or universities in the United States are awarded with grants for their projects, but to meet the entrepreneurial goals of the award, the students are also required to raise a modest amount of cost share funds through crowdfunding platforms.

DREAMS to reality

The Virginia Tech students were brought together for this effort in the Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Lab, led by Chris Williams, the L.S. Randolph Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Many of the methods that have come alive in this project are the result of the mentoring and vision cast by Williams, infused with the energy and creativity of undergraduate researchers.

Williams was a pioneer in 3D printing at Virginia Tech, coming to the university in 2008. His hiring coincided with the era when 3D printing became a well-known and understandable technology, and Williams was one of the early adopters in Blacksburg. The technology has always been the focus of his research and was the topic of his Ph.D. dissertation more than a decade ago. His lab has experienced a steady growth of methods, materials, and machines as the technology has progressed.

The cavernous space he oversees includes machines that print metal, plastic, and more. Most of these machines are purchased commercially, but the DREAMS Lab team hasn’t been content to let commercial developments drive their capability.

Several years ago, Williams set his team to the task of creating a machine that prints multiple materials in one box. The result was their own “DREAMS machine,” a single 3D-printing station featuring multiple different printing tools capable of creating complex prints without walking to multiple stations. This first creation represented a direction, not an end point. While that machine was novel in its time, lab members have continued driving the pace of innovation in methods, even hosting competitions that encourage complex projects using the technology.

“A big mission of our lab is to think about the next generation of additive manufacturing technology,” Williams said. “We’re always trying to push the functionality of the printing. For the past several years, we’ve been working on the technology that would allow us to print structural materials, functional materials, and conductive materials together. The ultimate goal has been to print multifunctional parts with moving components and embedded intelligence.”

From its infancy, the general idea of 3D printing is to apply materials in layers. A solid object would be built by stacking lines of materials on top of one another, slowly building an object from the bottom to the top.

Williams has been challenging his students to think in terms of printing differently. Instead of printing along flat planes, he has been encouraging development toward printing along curved lines by integrating 3D-printing tools onto a robotic arm. This is called multi-axis printing, where an axis indicates a direction in which printing heads can move. For printing to be “true 3D,” this is the logical next frontier. Enabling the robotic arm to pick up several different tools (a 3D-printing tool, a cutting tool, and a tool that can place electronic components), the team can create a work cell capable of autonomously fabricating complex systems.

On this visionary foundation, a team of undergraduate innovators entered the stage with a project they pitched to NASA. NASA responded with support.

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The student pitch

Two of the students most directly involved with that robotic printer are Tadek Kosmal and Kieran Beaumont, both seniors majoring in robotics and mechatronics. Kosmal, originally from Falls Church, Virginia, started working with the robotic arm printer during his first year on campus, and Beaumont, of Reston, Virginia, joined shortly after, taking notes from Williams and post-doctoral researcher Joseph Kubalak to learn the capability and methodology of the machine.

The NASA challenge created an opportunity for those projects to expand rapidly. Williams and Kubalak learned about the competition and presented the idea to the undergraduate researchers in December 2020. Kosmal, Beaumont, and others spent their winter break imagining a project that might be a good fit for both the lab and NASA. They came back in February with a pile of possibilities and teamed up to write a fully student-led proposal.

After comparing ideas and imagining what might work best, the students decided to move toward Williams’ multi-process, multi-axis vision. Their cell would do the things that they had envisioned together: 3D print a drone starting with a shell printed from multiple directions, drop chassis and electronics in, print over them, and cut away any excess material. The object they chose would be a fully functional, flying drone that aligned with NASA’s goals.

“Not only are we trying to 3D print a drone, we are making a fully created product in one single envelope,” said Kosmal. “We’re creating the chassis, we’re putting the electronics in, we’re enclosing it, and then we’re releasing it into the world.”

The future of deployment

To make a fully functional drone that would fly away from its own printer and record the creation of the next drone to be created would be a radical step forward for the 3D printing world. In the past, the DREAMS Lab has created such projects with a fair amount of manual labor involved. Typically, that process would require human intervention either in moving from machine to machine, or completing the assembly by hand after the print was finished. In this project, the machines would be linked and the assembly would be integrated into their processes.

For NASA, this could mean the ability to deploy task-oriented drones in remote locations such as Mars. Williams sees a possible future where a work cell could land on the red planet to create reconnaissance drones months ahead of a human landing crew. If the harsh conditions of a remote planet damage one drone, the printer handily creates and deploys another.

If we were still writing a sci-fi story, this would be the dramatic finish. The tiny robot would leave its printer, perform its task, and everyone would applaud. Back on Earth, Williams, Kubalak, and this stellar team of students would pat one another on the back. That imaginary event is part of the vision that this team has built together, and it’s closer now than it’s been before.

“We’re thrilled for these students to receive one of only a few national awards,” said Williams. “Many have been undergraduate research assistants since they were first-year students, and they’re finally getting to apply the research they’ve done to a completely new, very complex design problem.”

In addition to Kosmal and Beaumont, the RAV-Fab team includes: Eric Link, a DREAMS Lab undergraduate researcher and co-author of the USRC proposal; Jimmy Lowe, the team business lead and co-author of the USRC proposal; Conner Pulling, an undergraduate researcher in the Virginia Tech FASER Lab; Dalton Phillips, a senior in mechanical engineering; Heather Wotton, a current undergraduate student and returning intern at Northrop Grumman; Camille Kudrna, who will work for Savannah River National Laboratory and is completing an independent study at the VT Unmanned Systems Lab; and Hutch Peter, an undergraduate researcher in the DREAMS Lab.

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