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Designing Drones From the Ground Up

When off-the-shelf robotics can’t do the job, this Dutch company turns to HP 3D printing

July 3, 2020

This story originally appeared in The Robot Report: Avular designs custom drones from the ground up with 3D printing.

Since its founding six years ago, Netherlands-based Avular has built sophisticated drones for industrial and agricultural clients. Business was good, but for the first several years there was a frustrating limitation: “We started to get a lot of customers asking, ‘Can I do this with a drone? Can I do that with a drone?’” says Avular co-founder and CEO Albert Maas. “We often had to say, ‘I'm sorry, it’s too complicated to take this very niche, dedicated system and build something else with it.’

Avular co-foundr and CEO Albert Mas

Avular co-foundr and CEO Albert Mas

That is, until two years ago, when Avular decided to flip that script. The team turned all its focus toward building core applications and platforms that would become the components for endlessly customizable drones and robots. From prototypes to working models, HP 3D printing has made it possible for Avular to help even small clients design and build their own custom robotics requiring a fraction of the resourcing that it would normally take.

“We said to ourselves, ‘Look, we’re engineers, we know how engineers think. So, let’s develop and make tools for other engineers to design their own drones,’” says Maas.

In 2020, Avular will go to market with “The Essentials,” customizable hardware and software components that enable customers to make any kind of drone or robot they need. At its core is a series of three-inch-square circuitry modules that can be clicked together on a drone or robot of any size, then custom programmed for any job. The Essentials are just what their name implies—the building blocks for mobile robotics.

The Essentials is a real-time on-board computer known as the Avular Prime, which is set to launch this September. Using Prime, programming becomes more accessible for engineers who can use a USB or wireless connection for programming and controlling mobile robots. Cerebra, also launching in September, enables engineers to monitor and adjust software in real-time and integrate with MATLAB Simulink, a common engineering platform, adding even more accessibility.

A prototype of Avular Prime, launching in September

A prototype of Avular Prime, launching in September

One inspiration for Avular’s change in business plan toward customizable, scalable solutions was Hadek, a Dutch company that makes high-tech glass blocks to line massive power plant chimneys. Hadek came to Avular looking for a drone that could inspect its chimney linings—a necessary part of regular maintenance. “This was a very difficult challenge,” says Maas.

The chimneys can be 500 feet tall and contain perhaps 90,000 glass blocks—each one requiring up-close inspection. Moreover, the thick chimney walls and narrow space eliminated the possibility of GPS guidance. And the chimneys are far too tall for even a skilled drone operator, situated on the floor in the center of the chimney, to guide the drone by sight. If that weren’t hard enough, Hadek required the drone to be outfitted with a heavy, specialized camera—and weight is the enemy of drone flight.

With a lot of help from sonar guidance systems, and prototyping with HP 3D printing, Avular rose to the challenge—and came away with a Eureka moment:

“We decided the most practical way to grow our business would be to create both software and hardware platforms that can be easily and quickly adapted to new applications,” says Maas. “That’s very important in an emerging market where everybody is still looking at what they can do with drones.”

An Avular engineer working with new robot technology

An Avular engineer working with new robot technology

But there was a problem: While many of Avular’s clients have their own talented engineers, they don’t know much about drone programming, which requires highly specialized coding skills. But most engineers today are comfortable programming in MATLAB Simulink. In its new components, Avular translates complex robotic software into MATLAB Simulink algorithms—making them easily usable by their customers’ engineers.

Maas says Avular now has three types of customers: companies that buy one of their standard drones or robots and adapt the software; others that customize existing robotic parts; and those that build a completely new drone or robot using Avular’s software and hardware technology.

For all these customers, HP 3D printing is essential to the process.

Avular drone parts printed on HP 3D printers

Avular drone parts printed on HP 3D printers

Maas  says the advanced plastics in HP 3D print systems make amazing drones possible. “One of the materials we use is Polyamide 12, which provides not only excellent durability but is also very impact resistant.” He says the material allows for thinner and lighter components—and it also looks fantastic. “The black surface finish is so good that we don’t need to paint them, and they also don’t look like cheap prototypes made with a hobby printer.”

The speed and cost efficiency of HP 3D printing also allow Avular’s customers to experiment and iterate—key pieces of their processes. 

"A lot of our customers don’t want to invest heavily in a specific product because they don’t know yet how they’re going to use it,” says Maas. “Lots of times you see that the third or the fourth prototype is totally different than the first.”

With conventional injection molding, changing one small part in a drone prototype could cost $30,000-$40,000. With HP 3D printing, that same part can be generated for about $50—and in a few weeks, versus several months. “It’s a very competitive proposal that we can offer our customers,” he says with characteristic Dutch understatement.

Avular engineers and designers testing a prototype of the drone made for Hadek

Avular engineers and designers testing a prototype of the drone made for Hadek

But it’s even more than that. Maas, an auto racing enthusiast who in his spare time designed and built the first electric Formula One race car (it’s carbon-negative and hits 150 miles per hour), evangelizes for the democratization of technology and design spurred by companies like his that are exploring the frontiers of 3D printing.

“What HP did for us, we essentially do for our customers,” he says. “3D printing is a way of creating new products much quicker with less investment and in an autonomous fashion. In much the same way, our customers—even small ones without huge R&D departments—can use our robotic systems as building blocks to very efficiently impact their businesses.”

Chad Mack