A wing command of disposable, 3D printed drones flies across the sky etching an invisible grid above 300 square miles of barren mountainous wilderness. Through brutal weather conditions, each drone methodically covers its assigned territory in search of a group of lost hikers.

After less than three hours on the search, 50 of the one hundred and fifty drones sent out have been irrevocably lost to various perils – but the hikers are safe in a mountainside emergency shack awaiting transportation home once the weather clears.

No members of the search team suffered injuries or casualties (the three of them controlled the drones from a centrally positioned helicopter) and the total price of the search is less than $10000 in lost equipment and fuel for the search.

As all the parts required to build the airframes for the drones can be combined into a single build on a Fortus 900 printer, and each drone was built of ABS-M30 material thermoplastic, the total cost is $109 per drone.

If you consider that the current cost to undertake a similar rescue might run to nearly $200,000, the appeal becomes obvious, and should you think the new paradigm described above lacks credibility, you need to rethink your position.

Engineers at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre of the University of Sheffield have recently printed a five foot wide drone prototype as part of their research into 3D printing of complex aeronautical designs.

And the team of researchers, led by Senior Design Engineer Dr. Garth Nicholson, say the low cost of printing relatively small 3D aircraft will soon see them used for one-way search flights, reconnaissance and the delivery of lightweight items.

The UAV has already undergone test flights as a non-powered glider, and the team are moving on to  develop an electric ducted fan propulsion system to incorporate into their airframe. They envision a system to allow pilots to fly the craft via GPS as the next step in the process.

Made of only nine total parts which are snapped together, the drones weigh less than 4.5 pounds.

According to a Development Engineer for the project, John Mann, it's the relatively inexpensive nature of the FDM process that's brought the idea one step closer to reality. Mann was responsible for detail design and CAD modeling of the aircraft.

"The whole airframe was designed specifically for additive manufacture," Mann said. "The optimum configuration for the diverse requirements of aerodynamic performance and FDM manufacture appeared to be the blended wing body. This type of design has a number of advantages. It lends itself to FDM technology due to the smooth leading and trailing edges over each half-span."

The Sheffield team says they're also examining the properties of nylon in place of plastic to build the drones, and add that they believe a nylon version of the craft would be 60 percent stronger without resulting in additional weight.

"We're also investigating full, on-board data logging of flight parameters, autonomous operation by GPS, and control by surface morphing technology," Nicholson says.

The AMRC was established in 2001 as a collaboration between the University of Sheffield and aerospace titan Boeing.