SmartDrone is a leading manufacturer of specialized drones for terrain mapping and making precise measurements of large areas. The company provides its solutions to companies and developers who need to get an accurate picture of the landscape or workplace. In addition to the production of hardware, it also provides specialized services for customers. 3D printing from powdered plastics plays an important role in the production of its solutions, thanks to which it is able to significantly reduce the production costs of drones and accelerate their development. At work, SmartDrone uses the innovative and high-performance QLS technology by Nexa3D.

In its solutions, the company combines high-resolution LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging – a method of measuring distance by illuminating the target with laser light and measuring reflection using a sensor), a camera with a sensitive GPS module and a powerful on-board computer with a complex software algorithm. As a result, the SmartDrone team is able to provide contour maps with an accuracy of up to 1 foot (~ 30 cm). In addition to the production and sale of drones, the company also has a team of 7 field work specialists operating throughout the United States – they can provide drone services to customers who do not want to invest in their own equipment or do not want to learn how to use it.

The design of the company’s flagship drone, the Discovery 2, features carbon fiber and machined aluminum components, while the outer body is 3D printed using PA 12 polyamide – a lightweight but very durable material that is highly impact resistant. This is important for an industrial drone that is used in rough terrain.

Additive manufacturing allows the SmartDrone team to maintain a smooth product development and production process. “We work very fast in our design iterations, so developing such tooling would be very difficult to do for injection molding, and the cost of tooling with our small production volumes just doesn’t make sense,” says Chris McKulsky, SmartDrone Engineering Manager. “Additionally, we are able to make more complex geometries and very strategically determine where we can drop weight, which is extremely important – every 250 grams is about 1 minute of flight. Thin, large surfaces would also likely warp during injection molding.” Another benefit is that additive manufacturing allows the creation of complex internal channels that can aid in air evacuation to assist in heat management in flight.

Initially, SmartDrone used the services of an external company that printed parts on HP printers in the Multi Jet Fusion technology. Over time, the team decided to increase the scale of production and purchase its own machine with greater production capacity.

In the previous company, the two co-founders of SmartDrone shared the building with Nexa3D. Engineers from Nexa helped to print several prototypes on 3D printers, which at that time were based on a light-curing resin. Nexa3D soon acquired NXT Factory and the Quantum Laser Sintering (QLS) powder polyamide 3D printing technology. The teams kept in touch and in early 2022, as QLS was being prepared for market launch, SmartDrone and Nexa3D joined forces in the beta program to better understand how the QLS method compares to the MJF technology they were already using?

What sets QLS technology apart from other powder methods is its unmatched throughput. At 8 liters per hour, it is around 60% faster than the MJF, plus it has an average build density of 20% compared to just 10% of the MJF. Both of these numbers mean higher overall throughput, but QLS also has a higher build volume and quick build unit replacement, further reinforcing the appeal of this state-of-the-art technology to the SmartDrone team’s eyes. “Looking at the cost, the cost of a full QLS team is the cost of just one part using MJF with our service provider,” says McKulsky.

The exclusive distributor of Nexa3D in Poland is 3D Phoenix. Ask what can change in your business: [email protected].

Source: 3DPhoenix press materials

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