3D-printed unmanned vehicle gets off the ground

Posted on 16 Sep 2011 by The Manufacturer

An aircraft ‘printed’ using a laser sintering process has completed flight tests and now moves to the next phase of development, while co-developer 3T RPD stresses that UK additive manufacturing sector needs to capitalise on its position.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s a plastic-printed unmanned aircraft, or UAV. The Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft, or SULSA, on show at DESi went from drawing board to flight in just seven days, and could revolutionise the economics of aircraft design, says co-developer 3T RPD.

Constructed of just four parts that clip together, the makers say it can be assembled in minutes without the need for post-processing required of parts manufactured using conventional processes.

With a 1.2m wingspan, SULSA is the world’s first published “3D-printed aircraft”. Developed by Professors Keane and Scanlan at Southampton University with Newbury-based 3T RPD, the aircraft was designed with features that would have been impossible or prohibitively expensive using substractive techniques, such as turning and boring.

On show at DSEi and flight tested in September, SULSA cost under £3,000 to build and flies at 75kts (90mph), with a cruise range of 45km at 38kts and a flying time of 40 minutes. “The
SULSA UAV is a flying example of the benefits of additive manufacturing technology,” said
chief executive of 3T RPD Ian Haliday. “Governments and companies are looking to use UAVs in an increasing number of applications, the potential is enormous.”

The additive manufacturing process allows multiple design features to be integrated into the aircraft fuselage and wings, which houses all the internal mechanical components. When in cruise mode the aircraft is almost silent. AM techniques are already used in military and civilian aerospace applications to make specific fixed parts that need to be light and can be expensive to machine from a workpiece.

Mr Haliday says that the company is in talks with several companies about buying the technology for UAV applications, but cannot provide names.

With companies like EADS in Bristol recently revealing a 3D-printed working bicycle, AM has the potential to become a very strong specialism for UK manufacturing, but we need to act quickly Haliday says. “The UK is fast developing a comparative advantage in the application of AM to many field – aerospace, defence, medical and aesthetic uses are just some,” he says. “Companies with these AM machines and university departments need to collaborate more with perfecting techniques and new applications to best our foreign competitors – for example, the US is pouring millions into AM technology.”

Another exciting application for AM, Haliday says, is in creating prosthetic plates for severe cranio-facial surgical operations. “Plates made from titanium and conventional materials are expensive and can be rejected. An AM-plate, with a choice of materials, can be a more benign substrate which the tissue can fuse to. A South African doctor has pioneered surgery with an AM-made plate and the results are very encouraging for AM developers.”