Since its founding six years ago, Eindhoven, Netherlands-based Avular has built aerial 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?’” said Albert Maas, co-founder and CEO of Avular. “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.’”
Two years ago, Avular decided to flip that script. The team turned its focus to building core applications and platforms that would become the components for customizable drones and robots. From prototypes to working models, the company said, HP 3D printing enabled it to help even small clients design and build their own custom robotics with a fraction of the resources 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,’” said Maas.
Avular ‘Essentials’ build upon modular components
This fall, Avular plans to bring to market “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 3-sq.-in. circuitry modules that can be clicked together on a drone or robot of any size, then custom programmed for any job. The Essentials are building blocks for mobile robotics, according to the company.
The Essentials includes a real-time, on-board computer known as the Avular Prime, which is set to launch this September. Prime is designed to enable engineers to use a USB or wireless connection to program and control mobile robots.
Cerebra, also launching in September, will enable engineers to monitor and adjust software in real-time and integrate with MATLAB Simulink, a common engineering platform, adding even more accessibility, said Avular.
Avular gets inspiration from chimney inspections
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,” said Maas.
The chimneys can be 500 ft. tall and contain as many 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 was’t difficult 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,” said Maas. “That’s very important in an emerging market where everybody is still looking at what they can do with drones.”
But 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.
3D printing essential to serving customers
Maas said 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 f these customers, HP 3D printing is essential to the process.
The advanced plastics in HP 3D-printed systems make amazing drones possible, according to Maas. “One of the materials we use is Polyamide 12, which provides not only excellent durability, but is also very impact resistant,” he said.
Maas added that the material allows for thinner and lighter components. In addition, he said, “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.”
Avular said the speed and cost-efficiency of HP 3D printing also allow its 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,” said 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 to $40,000. With HP 3D printing, that same part can be generated for about $50 in a few weeks, compared with several months. “It’s a very competitive proposal that we can offer our customers,” he noted.
But it’s even more than that. Maas is also an auto racing enthusiast who in his spare time designed and built the first electric Formula 1 race car. (It’s carbon-negative and hits 150 mph.) He evangelized for the democratization of technology and design spurred by companies like Avular that are exploring the frontiers of 3D printing.
“What HP did for us, we essentially do for our customers,” he said. “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.”
About the author
Contributor Max Alexander is an author and journalist. He is a former senior editor at People magazine and executive editor of Variety and Daily Variety. His writing — on topics from crime to technology to immigration — has appeared in dozens of publications including Smithsonian, The New York Times, Money magazine, and The Wall Street Journal.