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Japanese Makers Generatively Design and 3D Print X VEIN Drone for Disaster Response

When disaster strikes, the countdown is on to get necessary supplies to those who need them most. But conditions often make it nearly impossible to deliver aid in a timely manner. That’s one reason drones are a boon for disaster response worldwide. Now, two young makers from Japan hope to advance relief efforts with their own generatively designed and 3D printed life-saving drone: X VEIN,

Yuki Ogasawara and Ryo Kumeda, aka team ROK, were just 15 years old when the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami caused immeasurable destruction and damage on March 11, 2011. Like many of the country’s citizens, the two friends considered how they could help others in the disaster’s wake, starting them down a creative path toward drone development.

Drones were just gaining attention, and Ogasawara and Kumeda sought to apply this emerging technology toward disaster efforts. They had already won the Fighting Spirit Prize at the National High School Programming Contest (with a robot arm controlled by a smartphone) and taken seventh place in the RoboCupJunior Japan Open rescue division, and they were ready for the challenge. So in 2012, team ROK began developing a multicopter drone. And in 2015, they won the multicopter division of the National Student Indoor Flying Robot Contest.

Building on that success, team ROK went to Maker Faire Tokyo 2016, where they exhibited X VEIN, a drone built for disaster conditions and search-and-rescue missions. Featuring extended flight times, a reinforced frame, and propeller guards to prevent damage from crashes, X VEIN impressed visitors with its X-shaped body and lattice-structure design reminiscent of veined dragonfly wings.

But X VEIN’s appearance at Maker Faire Tokyo might not have happened if not for an event held at DMM.make AKIBA, a Tokyo hub of the maker community. There, Ogasawara and Kumeda first encountered generative design software and knew it would be essential for developing a drone with sufficient body strength, lightness, image-capturing capability, and safety features.

Generative Design Breakthrough

“There are many reasons existing drones are not used in disaster-hit areas, including their lack of safety features, their size and weight, and the low potential for customization,” says Ogasawara.

Clearly, a tool that can solve for those requirements is key to any drone-development process. Generative design provides computer-generated schematics and structural analysis optimized to fulfill predetermined conditions, which can then be output to a 3D printer. This allows for lighter designs than previously possible with conventional manufacturing methods—essential for producing a drone that would meet the necessary weight requirements.

“For a drone to hover in midair, the lift it generates must exactly match its own weight,” says Ogasawara, who is responsible for X VEIN’s mechanical design elements. “Variations of even 5 percent of overall weight change how operators must control the drone. It is crucial we make our drone as light as possible.”

Generative design made team ROK’s vision of a highly customizable drone, within strict size and weight constraints, possible. X VEIN’s unique body structure is the result of a lattice preset in Autodesk Within software. Adjusting the lattice density inside the software enabled the team to achieve the optimal weight and strength. They were able to 3D print the intricate lattice structure with services from iJet.

X VEIN Gets Its Wings

Currently a student at Saitama University’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Systems, Ogasawara joined hardware startup Exiii as an intern in early 2016. At Exiii, he worked with chief creative officer and designer Tetsuya Konishi. By April, they had completed design sketches for the X VEIN concept. The generative design-based lattice was integrated into the drone’s body, leading to the unit’s current design.

On the modeling of the drone’s body, Ogasawara says: “The design had a lot of free-form curves, which are hard to translate from sketches to a 3D model. Through Wacom, we were given access to a Cintiq pen display tablet. Using it to build up a model in Autodesk Fusion 360 with input based on our sketches made it possible to follow our design while smoothly re-creating it in 3D space.”

Kumeda, who now works at a communications infrastructure firm, provides the electrical expertise for X VEIN’s motors, battery, and related components.

“I started the parts-selection process once the preliminary sketches were complete and the size of the unit was determined,” he says. “Once the motors and propellers were decided upon, we then thought about operational capacity and the size of the battery required.

“With a 2.4 GHz frequency used for control, we have an operational range of about 500 meters without any obstructions,” Kumeda continues. “Current laws in Japan require operators to stay within visual contact of their drones, so our effective range comes to about 100 meters.”

The drone’s camera is mounted on a gimbal, isolating it from vibration and tilting, stabilizing the image. The images can be viewed in real time using a smartphone, accessing areas made impassible by disaster damage, confirming conditions, or performing other tasks. The drone could also carry thermographic and infrared-imaging equipment to locate survivors. Because most of X VEIN’s components are 3D printed, replacement parts also can be procured on-site—a huge advantage in disaster situations.

Team ROK hopes to use their current design as a starting point, modifying the structure to create an even lighter, longer-flying next-generation model. X VEIN was always intended to be an open-source platform that could be easily fabricated and customized by average users, who could push the basic design beyond its rescue functions. Ogasawara describes the X VEIN quest, borne out of the rubble of a natural disaster, as “working to become engineers that bring people happiness”—which, in team ROK’s case, spans from saving lives to inspiring like-minded creators.

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