AMRC engineers reach new heights with unmanned aerial vehicle

High-flying engineers from the University of Sheffield have unveiled new developments in design and rapid manufacturing technology at a top US aerospace conference.

The team, from the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre’s Design and Prototyping Group, gained worldwide publicity when they used their expertise to develop an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

Now, they have taken another step forward, developing their original design to create a UAV powered by electric ducted fan engines.

Members of the AMRC Design and Prototyping Group UAV team, left to right Sam Bull, Mark Cocking, Keith Colton, Daniel Tomlinson, John Mann and Dr Garth Nicholson.
Members of the AMRC Design and Prototyping Group UAV team, left to right Sam Bull, Mark Cocking, Keith Colton, Daniel Tomlinson, John Mann and Dr Garth Nicholson.

Members of the team were recently invited to speak about the UAV project at a leading aerospace manufacturing conference in Salt Lake City.

Senior design engineer Dr. Garth Nicholson said: “We launched the project to showcase the Design and Prototyping Group’s skills and technological capabilities – particularly when it comes to helping small and medium-sized manufacturers develop new products and move into new markets.

“It has been a success at all levels and has pushed the limits of design for Rapid Manufacturing (RM), turning theory into reality.”

Making the original glider involved developing new techniques that rapidly reduced the time, the amount of materials and the cost of manufacturing components using 3D printing technology.

Creating the powered UAV has involved further advances. The team succeeded in making the central body of the UAV, complete with the twin engine ducts and complex internal features, as a single, printed part, showing how using RM technology can avoid the need to make many different components that then have to be assembled.

Team members developed new techniques for making carbon fibre components and used 3D printing to make component jigs, fixtures and moulds, as well as parts of the UAV’s airframe.

They also improved pitch control by creating a moveable “Duck Tail” that uses concepts similar to those recently used in Formula One racing to harness the air leaving the UAV’s engines for aerodynamic effect.

Last, but not least, they designed a launch catapult, including parts made by RM technology, which can propel the UAV into the air with an acceleration up to three times that of gravity and a speed of just under 30 miles an hour.

Having developed a UAV, capable of cruising at around 45 miles an hour, the team’s next challenge will be to replace the electric ducted fans with miniature gas turbine engines and double the UAV’s wingspan to three metres.

The team is also looking at using novel ways of controlling flight to replace conventional methods and developing structural batteries – reducing weight by using parts of the UAV’s structure to store the power it uses to fly.