So-called 3D printers are capable of printing objects out of metal, glass, plastic, even sugar and mashed potatoes. And now they're being used to print delicate, transluscent wings for mechanical insects.
Roboticists Charles Richter and Hod Lipson, along with their colleagues at Cornell University made recent breakthroughs utilizing 3D printing technology to develop a flapping-wing aircraft, or ornithopter, that weighs just 3.89 grams and can hover for 85 seconds, the lightest and longest 'flying' model thus far. They published their results in the recent issue of Artificial Life.
According to the research article, these advancements will help scientists understand key mechanical principles central to insect flight and control. Eventually, that knowledge could lead to the development of low-power micro air vehicles that perform functions such as mapping, surveillance and search-and-rescue operations.
In the past, technical challenges have hindered the team's ability to fully experiment with ornithopter aerodynamics. For one, the batteries available until recently have weighed too much and have not been powerful enough to keep the craft aflight. So the team switched to smaller and lighter lithium-based batteries.
Additionally, manufacturing the wings was typically a delicate and time-consuming process, often taking days to complete. And, previous designs called for a dedicated hinge in the wing's central support beam — a complex a heavy assembly.
By switching to 3D printing, the researchers were able to produce the wings — made from a thin polyester film stretched over a carbon fiber frame — and all of the complex components in just minutes.
"Overcoming this barrier to experimentation will allow a comprehensive study of lift production for a wide variety of wing shapes, including those replicating real insect wings," the authors write.
Image: Courtesy Richter and Lipson