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In the Spring 2014 semester, Virginia Tech hosted a university-wide extracurricular competition that challenged students to design and fabricate fully 3D printed air and ground vehicles.  The context of the competition guided by the Department of Defense’s shared vision for forward deployment of Additive Manufacturing (AM) systems to provide agile on-site part production and reduction of supply chain complexity.  Specifically, the goal of the competition was to build an operational, remotely piloted ground or air vehicle made entirely via 3-D printing (and a standardized electronics kit), that will allow future deployed military or civilian engineers to fabricate remotely-piloted vehicles while in battlefield or austere environmental conditions, such as the site of a natural disaster to search for survivors or to carry out reconnaissance missions.

The competition was organized by the Virginia Tech DREAMS Lab and Mechatronics Lab and VT-ARC.  It was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research the Army Rapid Equipping Force; material donations came from Robotic Research, 3D Systems, and Stratasys.  Additional background information on the competition can be found here: and here:

Over 200 students (70+ teams) were engaged in this extracurricular challenge. 36 complete vehicle designs were presented at the mid-term design review.  Guided by an external panel of judges from AFOSR, Army, NASA, SBA, and TechShop, 14 vehicle designs (7 each of air and ground) were selected for the final competition day.

The ground vehicles were tasked with navigating an obstacle course featuring small tunnels, ramps, rubble field, and a maze that required tight cornering. Participants were required to navigate these obstacles and take images with their on-board wifi-enabled camera at 4 waypoints. Similarly, the air vehicles navigated a course that required them to image 4 waypoints. Each target was obscured by obstacles that required the pilot to fly near a window, over a tall wall, under a low clearance, over/into a well, and hover near ground-level. All vehicles were also challenged to carry additional payloads during their runs.

The participants’ submissions were judged not just on performance; the majority of their final scores were based on their effective use of “Design for Additive Manufacturing” principles, such as minimum print time, minimum assembly time, minimum use of non-3D printed components, and minimum material consumption .  $3,000 was awarded to the first-place team in both the air and ground competitions. Additional prizes were awarded in the categories of “shortest build time,” “best use of additive manufacturing,” and “best performance.”

All 14 of the final vehicles were made completely via 3D Printing – other than a few zip-ties/velcro (to hold on some electronic components) and wheels/treads, no non-3D Printed parts were present in the final designs. Videos of the 6 teams that placed (1st, 2nd, and 3rd in air and ground competitions) are found here.

The winning team, “Team Lobstrosity” (Earl Campaigne, Philip Lambert, and Logan Sturm), utilized a novel “origami-inspired” approach in which the components of their vehicle are printed flat to minimize build time. The parts, which feature integrated hinges, can be quickly folded into shape following printing. No part on the build tray is taller than 9mm, which enables the entire quad copter to be printed in just under 3.5 hours (via an Objet Connex 350 printing at high-speed mode). A highlight reel of their design (featuring print time-lapse, copter assembly, and flight) can be seen below

While assessment of the student learning gains from the competition is still ongoing, participants have reported significant improvement in their CAD, 3D Printing, and design process skills. Virginia Tech and VT-ARC are currently planning to expand this competition to multiple universities next year.

Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams

Dr. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech. He is the Director of the DREAMS Lab ( – an Additive Manufacturing research lab – and co-Director of the Center for Innovation-based Manufacturing ( Within the field of Additive Manufacturing, he is the recipient of the Rapid Prototyping Journal Outstanding Paper Award (2014), a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2013), the International Outstanding Young Researcher in Freeform and Additive Manufacturing Award (2012), and the Emerald Engineering Outstanding Doctoral Research Award (2010).

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