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Enhancing Firefighting with 3D Printed Drone Parts

The Laboratory of Sustainability Robotics of the Swiss Empa institute develops a special drone for firefighting operations. Featuring lightweight, stable, and temperature-resistant parts manufactured with SLS 3D printing, these 3D printed drone parts are the key to success in challenging firefighting scenarios.

David Häusermann
David Häusermann is a research engineer at Empa's Laboratory of Sustainability Robotics.

Materials for a sustainable future

As an interdisciplinary research institute, Empa sets standards in the field of sustainable and resilient solutions. Its mission is to turn away from a throw-away society and towards a circular economy – to ensure a greener future for our planet. The Laboratory of Sustainability Robotics, a department of Empa, focuses in part on the development of flying robot platforms.

Fire operations with drone technology

«Every day, firefighters risk their lives going into unknown environment», says David Häusermann. The research engineer and his team spent around six months developing, constructing, and testing a fire drone. The drone is intended as reconnaissance equipment from a safe distance, literally providing a picture of the danger zone – by means of an infrared sensor as well as a conventional RGB camera. In this way, risks can be minimized and efficiency increased during firefighting operations.

Equipped with an infrared and a RGB camera, the fire drone is sending video data directly from the danger zone.
3D Printed Drone Parts
3D Printed Drone Parts
3D Printed Drone Parts

Laser-sintered on the Sintratec S2 system, the components for the fire drone, such as the mounting frames of the polyamide aerogel shell, showcase the precision and durability of 3D printed drone parts.

It took six months from design to building the final prototype of the drone.

Tolerating extreme temperatures

Usually, drones are not designed to function in extreme temperatures. The used materials tend to melt or even burn. «For the prototype of the fire drone we had to search for materials that could withstand high temperatures up to 200°C», David emphasizes. Thus, in cooperation with materials scientists at Empa, a polyimide aerogel heat shield was developed to effectively protect the drone’s internal electronics.

Too hot for FDM 3D printing

During the initial stages, additive manufacturing technologies like FDM (fused deposition modeling) provided significant design freedom for the development of 3D printed drone parts. However, as the project evolved, these FDM components were upgraded to laser-sintered PA12 elements. This shift was driven by the superior accuracy, material quality, and temperature resistance of PA12, crucial for the demanding conditions faced by firefighting drones. Compared to the FDM technology, SLS offers another benefit of eliminating the need for support structures during printing.

FDM components used at the beginning had to be replaced by SLS 3D printed drone parts due to the high material requirements and heat resistance.

SLS parts prove themselves

The 3D printed drone parts sponsored by Sintratec were used for the mounting frames of the aerogel shell, fixing points for electronic components, clamps for the rotor arms, and the gearbox housings. «The parts Sintratec provided to us fulfilled all of our project requirements and performed as expected when tested in real-life conditions,» explains David enthusiastically. For the engineer it is clear: «the SLS technology and its excellent material properties are perfect for drone construction – high quality, robust and heat resistant parts.»

3D Printed Drone Parts
3D Printed Drone Parts
3D Printed Drone Parts
The housings of the motors and mounting clamps for the rotor arms are also made of strong and lightweight PA12.
David Häusermann

“The SLS technology and its excellent material properties are perfect for drone construction – high quality, robust and heat resistant parts.”

David Häusermann
Research Engineer
EMPA

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