Italian drone company Soleon has been innovating the field of unmanned aerial applications since 2009. From aerial photography to thermal mapping, the company is involved in diverse projects, which also requires them to approach their drone designs flexibly. The drone market is a fast-paced one, requiring frequent design upgrades and short product development cycles. Materialise has been providing Soleon with 3D printing services for years, which allows Soleon to adapt their products quickly to the needs of their customers, shorten lead times and reduce the weight of the drone parts compared to expensive and time-consuming milled parts.

A recent project by Soleon

One of Soleon’s recent projects is called the SoleonAgro, a drone intended for biological pest control in agriculture. The target of this project is a pest which affects maize stalks, causing a significant amount of crops to be destroyed each year. Instead of turning to pesticides or genetically modified crops as a solution, the SoleonAgro drone distributes Trichogramma eggs. The Trichogramma is a species of wasp which eats the Corn Borer, and offers the great benefit of being a natural, eco-friendly solution. Moreover, the SoleonAgro drone distributes pest control across fields evenly and efficiently, with specialized arms that can distribute in three different directions at once, allowing them to work three times faster than their competitors.

Designing and Engineering a Drone for 3D Printing

“When we came to Materialise for end-use 3D-printed parts, our key requirement was that the parts needed to be lightweight (in order to maximize battery power). The design of the drone body was very complex, since we customized it completely for the purpose of an efficient distribution system,” says Michael Überbacher, Soleon’s founder. “We had already worked with Materialise for years for rapid prototyping on various projects, and had arrived at a design that we were happy with for the SoleonAgro.”

3D-printed drones

The unique design of the SoleonAgro drone is made possible with 3D Printing. The drones are designed by Soleon, using Materialise’s rapid prototyping services for testing and design verification to get to a working product.

For Soleon, 3D Printing offers the flexibility they need to adapt drones to the needs of their customers. The design requirements of each drone vary according to its end purpose: an aerial photography drone would need camera mounting points while a pest control drone like the SoleonAgro needs specialized ‘arms’ to enable its unique three-directional pesticide distribution system.

Once the design files are ready, Materialise engineers support Soleon to optimize the files for 3D Printing. This includes using lattice structured design for weight optimization, surface texturing and data preparation.


Serial Production with 3D Printing

We used Laser Sintering to print the drone bodies and parts in PA 12 (polyamide) and PA-GF (polyamide filled with glass particles). Owing to the high complexity of the parts and the functional nature of the application, Laser Sintering is the ideal choice for SoleonAgro. PA 12, a lightweight and versatile material, was chosen for its durability and low weight — a factor that can help maximize the battery life of a drone. PA-GF is used in parts located close to the motor, since this material has higher rigidity and is therefore less vulnerable to vibration.




“The big advantage of 3D Printing is that we can very quickly create complex systems, even in small quantities. Normally the parts are printed and sent within one week. As a small company, this offers us the opportunity to react very quickly to the changes and wishes of our customers,” says Michael Überbacher at Soleon. “Working with Materialise has been great, due to their wide range of technologies and large machine capacity, as well as their in-house design and engineering support. With this, we’ve managed to make the SoleonAgro the most cost-efficient and best performant solution on the market.”

All images courtesy of Soleon

Agricultural pest control using drones