The original Razor Raven, an unmanned military drone aircraft, has a wingspan of just over four feet and is used for reconnaissance, and until recently, cost some $76,000 to build.
But now versions of the original built using conventional methods by AeroVironment can be made with 3D printers – and they only cost $2,000 apiece to create.
Controlled by an Android smart phone and a series of free apps, the experimental and less expensive vehicle is designed by the MITRE Corporation, a non-profit organization which manages government research programs, and Michael Balazs and Jonathan Rotner, scientists at the University of Virginia.
The design for the drone came about when a project Balazs was working on a couple of years ago was giving him fits. Tasked with rebuilding a military robot, Balazs was frustrated that the proprietary electronics and custom software used to control the robot were outdated, inefficient and costly. So Balazs began exploring what could be done to replace them with off-the-shelf components and open-source programs.
What he arrived at was a sort of "Ah-Hah!" moment; why not use smart phones?
Nearly every smart phone on the market includes GPS functionality for navigation, a video camera and a wireless transmitter and receiver. When Balazs realized he could connect his phone to a variety of electronic devices using a "breakout board," his idea took wing.
Balazs and Rotner, along with a team at the University of Virginia led by David Sheffler, used radio-controlled toy cars as a test for their first iteration of their phone controller. The team then set out to build an Android-powered drone, and to save on the high cost of buying one from a military contractor, they printed their own.
The first version of the drone which would later become the Razor, dubbed 'Wendy,' was completed in seventeen individual printing operations. With a wingspan of just over six feet, 'Wendy' took about a week to print.
After a crash and some additional tweaking, 'Wendy' gave way to their Razor Raven. The Raven can be output in a single printer run which takes about a day and a half to complete.
The Raven is no toy. The drone has a cruising speed of nearly 44 mph and it can spend 40 minutes aloft without recharging. It's also capable of taking aerial pictures which are stitched together to make high-resolution maps, and it's all done with free software.