3D-printed plane takes flight from British Royal Navy ship

The British Royal Navy has demonstrated the potential future of its fleet by launching a 3D-printed aircraft from one of its ships.

The 3D-printed plane landed safely on a Dorset beach, with the test flight demonstrating the potential use of small, unmanned aircraft at sea. The 3D-printed aircraft has a wingspan of 4ft (1.5m) and a cruising speed of 50 knots (60mph) and first flew in 2011 when it was the world’s first entirely 3D-printed aircraft.

The aircraft’s flight from the HMS Mersey lasted less than five minutes, covering a 1600ft (500m) distance from Wyke Regis Training Facility in Weymouth to a landing zone on Chesil Beach.

A team of researchers helped to design the Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft, with the research team stating their pioneering techniques had advanced design thinking worldwide.

The design process for the 3D-printed plane began with complex geometry on a computer.

A laser beam was then used inside a printer to ‘sinter’ thin layers of nylon powder together as a solid mass, with the process then repeated numerous times to build objects.

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas said the flight of the 3D-printed plane was a glimpse into the British Royal Navy’s future approach.

“The launch of a 3D-printed aircraft from HMS Mersey is a small glimpse into the innovation and forward thinking that is now embedded in our navy’s approach,” he said.

“We are after more and greater capability in this field, which delivers huge value for money,

“And, because it’s new technology, with young people behind it, we’re having fun doing it.”

The first flight by an aircraft with parts produced by a 3D printer was an RAF Tornado which took to the skies last year.

Like their British counterparts, the U.S Navy has also been testing out new ideas using 3D printers, specifically to manufacture customized drones which can be designed differently for each given mission.

Researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School have developed a project to see how dual advances in information technology and fabrication technology could be combined to create helpful custom tools to help sailors on any particular mission.

The research team tested this concept in December last year, when a quadcopter was printed on the US Essex ship, which already had a 3D printer installed as a medical device used to print surgical tools.

The testing process involved a 3D file being sent to the US Essex, where sailors then uploaded it to a 3D printer and parts were printed out.

Following a set of instructions, the sailors assembled the components from the printer along with motors, a radio unit, a controller and a GPS unit that were already on the ship to complete the 3D quadcopter.