Fabricating fully functional drones

Following up, in a way, on our post last week about fabricating a Zine Machine, we’re looking at the other end of the high-tech spectrum. This project at MIT, is able to fabricate fully functional drones using a widely available laser cutter, and an advanced assembly device developed by the research team, the LaserFactory.

A group from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) recently developed a new system to print functional, custom-made devices and robots, without human intervention. Their single system uses a three-ingredient recipe that lets users create structural geometry, print traces, and assemble electronic components like sensors and actuators.

In some settings, like architecture or product design firms, plotters have been quite common. A laser cutter, used in this project, is basically the same thing but with a laser used for cutting a material, instead of a pen drawing on paper.

To very roughly image what this looks like, imagine a straight plastic arm across the short side of a pool table, sliding on rails along the long side of the table. In turn there’s a print head sliding along that arm, holding various pens to draw on huge sheets of paper. The arm and rails allow the head and pens (or head and laser) to make its way to any point on the table.

This MIT fabricator replaced the laser-holding head of a laser cutter with a much more advanced one, able to cut at different depths in a variety of materials, pour silver for electronic circuits, pick and place components (in this case motors, battery, integrated circuit, etc.), and finally cures the silver to make the traces conductive, securing the components in place to complete fabrication. For some projects, it even manages to cut at a specific depth, allowing the plastic to bend, creating a 3D structure.

“By leveraging widely available manufacturing platforms like 3D printers and laser cutters, LaserFactory is the first system that integrates these capabilities and automates the full pipeline for making functional devices in one system.”

As this kind of fabricating engine evolves, they will be able to handle more complex and more varied constructions, allowing for relatively small scale production, yet much faster and automated than building everything by hand. One can imagine sensor assemblies for example, placed around city to take atmospheric measurements, or quite a variety of other applications.