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3D printed drone launched from Royal Navy ship

Ben Sampson

SULSA being launched from HMS Mersey
SULSA being launched from HMS Mersey

First flight of entirely printed drone shows future promise of technology to replace conventionally produced aircraft

The Royal Navy has for the first time successfully launched an entirely 3D printed aircraft from one of its ships.

As reported earlier this month in PE magazine, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) test is a first step towards the replacement of aircraft on board ships with barrels of powder and 3D printers, capable of printing drones bespoke for missions on demand.

The SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) was launched as planned using a catapult from HMS Mersey into the Wyke Regis Training Facility in Weymouth, before landing on Chesil Beach.

The test was part of Project Triangle,  MoD research which is being led by engineers from the University of Southampton.

The flight, which can be seen below, covered roughly 500 metres and lasted just a few minutes, but demonstrates the use of small, lightweight UAVs launched and used at sea.

SULSA was originally developed by Southampton researchers in 2011 as the world's first entirely 3D-printed aircraft. It weighs 3kg, measures 1.5m across and has a cruise speed of 58mph. The aircraft was printed using laser sintered nylon into four parts, assembled without using tools and has the electronics, camera and battery systems fitted after printing.

Professor Andy Keane, from the engineering and environment department at the University of Southampton, said: “The key to increased use of UAVs is the simple production of low cost and rugged airframes. We believe our 3D printed nylon has advanced design thinking in the UAV community worldwide.”

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas said that the trial helps explore how simple, automated systems have the potential to replace complex machines. He said: “Radical advances in capability often starts with small steps. The launch of a 3D-printed aircraft from HMS Mersey is a small glimpse into the innovation that is now embedded in our Navy's approach.

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

The MoD is working on a number of initiatives that aim to use 3D printing to cut costs and improve capabilities across the Navy, RAF and Army. 3D printed drones on board ships could be amongst the earlier applications and are could be in use within the next five years, said Jim Scanlan, professor of design at the University of Southampton

However, Kevin Franks, from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), which conducts the MoD's R&D, said: “While Additive Manufacture presents a number of opportunities, a number of challenges need to be resolved in order to fully understand its utility. These include issues such as material types, costs, logistic chains, platform motion and vibration, complexity and material integration of components such as power sources, processing and cabling.

“We are working closely with Army, Air Force and Naval Front Line Commands, industry and academia to understand the full potential of this technology and the unique opportunities it might offer.”


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