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3D printed UAV guides Royal Navy ship through Antarctic

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SULSA UAV
SULSA UAV

The device was created using laser sintering technology and valued at around £7,000

A 3D printed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by the University of Southampton has performed its first scouting mission for the Royal Navy in the Antarctic.

The UAV, named SULSA, was deployed from the Royal Navy’s patrol ship HMS Protector, along with a quadcopter, to scout ahead of the vessel as it made its way through ice. The aircraft captured aerial view images and videos of the environment to provide the ship with real-time data, while the quadcopter was used for shorter range operations.

Created using laser sintering technology, the device is made of nylon and weighs 3kg. The developers printed four major parts which were assembled, with each machine valued at around £7,000, which the manufacturers say is cheaper than an hour’s flying time by a Fleet Air Arm helicopter. The UAV features a small engine and reaches up to 60mph without noise. It is controlled from a laptop on board the craft.

After trials with the craft on the HMS Mersey off the Dorset coast in 2015, the trials in the Antarctic were a first for the Royal Navy. After launching, the UAV stayed in-flight for up to 30 minutes before landing in water to be retrieved and then re-launched. Andrew Lock from the University’s Computational Engineering and Design research group was present to supervise the mission.

Captain Rory Bryan, HMS Protector’s commanding officer, said: “This trial of these low-cost but highly versatile aircraft has been an important first step in establishing the utility of unmanned aerial vehicles in this region. It’s demonstrated to me that this is a capability that I can use to great effect.”

Andy Keane, professor of Computational Engineering at the University of Southampton, said: “The series of flights conducted by Southampton staff in conjunction with the Royal Navy from HMS Protector has been a great success. These flights have shown just what can be achieved with smart design and low cost digital manufacture.”

The outcome of the Antarctic test has been reported to the Royal Navy’s unmanned aircraft unit, 700X Squadron, in Culdrose, its headquarters in Portsmouth and the Maritime Warfare Centre at HMS Collingwood.

Commodore James Morley, the navy’s assistant chief of staff for maritime capability, said: “I am delighted with the successful deployment of small unmanned aerial vehicles from HMS Protector in the Antarctic. The whole team has overcome significant hurdles to demonstrate the enormous utility of these aircraft for affordable and persistent surveillance and reconnaissance from ships – even in the environmentally challenging environment of the Antarctic.

“Although this was a relatively short duration trial to measure the relative merits of fixed and rotary wing embarked systems, we are continuing to review our options for acquisition of maritime unmanned aerial vehicles in the future,” he added.

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