Concordia researchers improve drone wings with 4D composite printing

Researchers from Concordia University have presented a new 4D composite printing method capable of making the wings of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones cheaper to manufacture and more efficient during flight.

With UAVs becoming increasingly relied upon within the aviation space, the sector is under pressure to keep expenses down while simultaneously improving performance efficiency. To this end, the Concordia team has published a new paper outlining an experimental 4D composite printing technology capable of achieving these aims. 

“Our paper shows that a UAV using this kind of wing can support a good amount of load for small or medium-sized vehicles,” said Suong Hoa, Director of the Concordia Center for Composites. 

3D printing UAVs

Although a relatively new market, UAVs are occupying an ever-growing space in aviation circles. Over the past few years, additive manufacturing has been leveraged for the design and production of optimized components for UAVs at lower costs. 

For instance, since signing an MoU with TAUV for the production of soldier systems and sensors for UAVs in 2018, metal 3D printer developer Titomic developed what it claimed to be the largest 3D printed titanium UAV via its Titomic Kinetic Fusion (TKF) technology in 2019.

Since then, metal 3D printer development project Aeroswift has successfully 3D printed a large scale titanium UAV airframe, while engineers at Kongu Engineering College additively manufactured a miniature Bluetooth-controlled UAV capable of evading capture within covert military operations. 

More recently, RF product developer Optisys unveiled a new generation of 3D printed lightweight parts for high-altitude UAVs, including space-ready antennas and radar components. In March, Hypersonix Launch Systems was awarded $2.95 million by the Australian government to fund the development of a hydrogen-powered UAV using 3D printing.

Titomic’s titanium unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Photo via Titomic.
Titomic’s titanium unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Photo via Titomic.

Cheaper, more efficient UAVs

With the aviation industry under increasing pressure and scrutiny to reduce the environmental impacts of its aircraft, researchers are continually looking at ways of reducing costs while improving component efficiency.

The Concordia team’s research paper focuses on a method to make the wings of UAVs cheaper to manufacture and more efficient in flight. In particular, the team explored a new way of manufacturing adaptive compliant trailing edge (ACTE) morphing wings for drones, replacing the commonly used hinged wing flap that is attached to the main wing body.

The team leveraged a 4D composite printing technology pioneered by Hoa. 4D printing refers to when a 3D printed object transforms itself into another structure in the presence of a stimulus, such as water or heat. Initial 3D printing occurs on a flat surface that is then exposed to the stimulus, causing a reaction and changing the surface shape.

Suong Hoa, Director of the Concordia Center for Composites. Photo via Concordia University.
Suong Hoa, Director of the Concordia Center for Composites. Photo via Concordia University.

Hoa’s composite 4D printing technology relies on a sinewy combination of long, fine filaments just 10 microns in thickness held in place by a resin. The 4D printer prints the resin in ultra-thin layers at 90-degree angles from each other which are compacted together and cured in an oven at 180˚C. The structures are then cooled down to 0˚C to produce an object that is stiff but not brittle. 

This printing technique enables the researchers to create a section of material with a uniform curvature that is sandwiched between the wing flap’s upper and lower surfaces. As a result, the material is both flexible and strong enough to support the 20-degree deformation the wing requires for optimum flight maneuverability. 

The resulting ACTE morphing wing is made up of flat upper and lower skins, and a 4D composite printed corrugated core. The wing reportedly has the capability to improve aerodynamic characteristics and flow separation characteristics, ultimately resulting in improved fuel efficiency. 

“The idea is to have a wing that can change its shape easily during flight, which would be a great benefit as compared to fixed-wing aircraft,” Hoa said.

While the paper presents a compelling case for significantly improving the wings of drones and UAVs, Hoa also sees “all manner” of other applications for the 4D composite printing technology, due to its ability to be easily transported. For now, Further work is being carried out to refine the analysis, design, manufacturing and testing of the wing.

Further information on the study can be found in the paper titled: “Development of a new flexible wing concept for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle using corrugated core made by 4D printing of composites,” published in the Composite Structures journal. The study is co-authored by S. Hoa, M. Abdali, A. Jasmin, D. Radeschi, V. Prats, H. Faour, and B. Kobaissi.

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Featured image shows Titomic’s titanium unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Photo via Titomic.