The following guest post about making a drone prototype was written by Nisan Lerea, CEO of WAZER. WAZER is a New York-based company that builds small, desktop CNC waterjet cutting machines designed to precisely cut nearly any material.
The drone industry is evolving fast — and especially as more drone pilots seek DJI alternatives — prioritizing the drone prototype process is critical.
But the process of making a drone prototype brings challenges, as balancing speed, precision, and cost in the prototype phase is a delicate act. Finding reliable solutions for specialized components can further complicate the process.
Sure, outsourcing parts is one way to acquire the needed components for a drone prototype, but in light of recent global supply chain disruptions coupled with widespread sentiment against using parts made in China, the decision to outsource can introduce significant risks, including delays, increased costs, and quality issues.
Prototyping, by nature, also means being able to make design modifications, and produce new versions that actually work, fast and cost efficiently. Advanced in-house manufacturing tools can offer solutions to these hurdles during this critical phase, driving efficiency and success.
Challenges of prototyping drone hardware
- Timelines: Balancing accelerated prototyping cycles with thorough testing and iteration takes time, potentially causing delays in product development.
- Quality Control: Precision is critical to ensure drone components fit together and operate smoothly. Even minor misalignment can lead to performance issues or failure.
- Specialty Parts: When in need of specialized components that might not be readily available, outsourcing can be time-consuming and costly, resulting in delays and budget overruns.
- Cost: Developing a professional-caliber drone prototype can be costly, because you cannot make a more-sophisticated drone with generic off-the-shelf parts. Some estimates of new R&D are as high as $30K, plus as much as another $100K for machinery, software, and infrastructure to set up shop.
Why small-scale CNC manufacturing can be a gamechanger
Advances in technology have spawned compact, desktop-sized equipment for both additive (building up materials layer by layer, such as 3-D printing) and subtractive manufacturing (removing material to create the desired shape, such as milling), which are ideal for small-scale drone developers.
Computer Numerical Control (CNC) is seen as a revolutionary technology in manufacturing that has transformed how components are created. CNC manufacturing uses computers to control machine tools, enabling the transition from design to production with highly precise and repeatable operations. For prototypers who work on fast turnaround cycles, CNC machinery also allows for modifications in design to go from computer designs directly to the manufacturing tools.
One form of CNC manufacturing equipment is the waterjet cutter, which takes a high-pressure stream of water, mixes it with fine abrasive particles, and shoots it at high speed through an orifice half a millimeter wide. When driven by CNC controls, waterjets can cut through various materials with extreme accuracy, and consistent repeatability.
Some prototype makers turn to waterjet cutters as a solution
Small-scale waterjet cutters have emerged as a key tool for drone specialists. The unparalleled, computer-powered precision allows engineers to craft intricate designs and custom shapes to improve drone aerodynamics and functionality.
For successful flights, drones must be balanced, both in their airframe structures as well as in their prop thrust. Each frame component must be precisely and consistently fabricated to avoid balance issues. And today’s compact CNC water jets might be the tool to achieve exactly that — allowing fabricators to design their components and produce multiple pieces with reliable and repeated accuracy and at lower cost.
Typically, waterjet cutters are massive room-sized machines with 6-figure price tags that require industrial-level infrastructure and professional operators — but that’s likely not suitable for start-ups or for drone prototypers. Today’s accessible water jets typically need only about six square feet feet of floor space or can even sit on a workbench, and plug into a standard electrical outlet and a sink. For example, the Wazer machine is 34″ wide by 26″ front to back. roughly fitting in that space.
Expect most affordable waterjet cutters to cost around $10,000 — a reasonable price point for most small businesses, startups, MakerSpaces, or perhaps even well-funded high school shop classes and college engineering labs.
As a result, instead of sending jobs to be made at outsourced waterjet shops, many companies are now installing small water jets in-house. To facilitate prototyping and innovation, these new affordable water jets are located directly in the engineering departments at many companies, allowing designers and engineers and prototypers of drones (and other products) to conceive of ideas in the morning, draw them on CAD software, and then send them to the waterjet (or other CNC device) in their office for immediate production, and fly in the afternoon.
Here are some benefits of waterjet cutters for drone prototypers:
- Faster prototype cycles: With in-house waterjet cutting technology, engineers can run prototype cycles faster, ultimately streamlining development and increasing speed to market.
- Eliminates outsourcing: Waterjet cutting technology can eliminate the cost and timing of outsourcing parts, giving drone engineers the ability to identify a need, design a solution, produce the parts, and integrate them into their prototype in their own facilities. This is especially relevant in today’s global landscape, where supply chain disruptions have highlighted the risks of relying on external suppliers.
- Affordable fabrication in-house: This encourages flexibility and experimentation, leading to better-performing drones. For example, producing the drone airframe pictured below in-house in ⅛” carbon fiber would cost about $100, of which $65 was for the carbon fiber sheet, and $37 for operating the in-house waterjet machine. That’s as opposed to outsourcing the prototype, which could cost $220 and take at least a week.
- Compatibility with heat-sensitive materials: The waterjet’s cold-cutting process prevents heat-affected zones and material distortions, making it ideal for heat-sensitive materials.
- Improved safety: Waterjet cutting technology reduces the challenges of working with composites and specialized materials. Carbon fiber, when cut or machined, produces dangerous dust, and the heat from laser cutting can emit noxious fumes and damage the underlying material. In contrast, waterjets deliver a clean result with a safe process.
What’s next for building drone prototypes
The pace of innovation in the drone industry is only exceeded by the flight speed of today’s drones. Yet today’s drones and their applications pale compared to what we know the future will bring.
For that, drone prototypers need the ability to convert their visions into flying prototypes and production drones. CNC machines have now become accessible in price, size, and ease of use, making it possible for designers to realize their ideas, experiment with prototypes, and get new drones flying faster than ever without having to compromise designs, outsource parts or depend on distant supply chains.
-By Nisan Lerea, CEO of Wazer
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