The British Royal Navy’s HMS Mersey floats in the English Channel, a gray mass against a blue backdrop. Suddenly, a white winged object appears, darting for the sky. It’s small and could be misperceived as a gull. It carries on upwards.
The camera view from the SULSA unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—the world’s first 3-D printed aircraft—shows the aircraft being catapulted off the ship’s bow. After a few seconds in an upward trajectory, it banks right. The only sound a nasally whir.
This week, the Univ. of Southampton announced the aircraft’s successful flight off the warship. The 1.5-m, 3-kg aircraft launched off the coast of Dorset. After take-off, it completed an orbit over the beach before moving inland and completing a second orbit. It then successfully landed on the beach.
Though only covering 500 m and lasting a few minutes, the flight, according to the university, demonstrates the aircraft’s potential in a maritime environment.
“The key to increased use of UAVs is the simple production of low-cost and rugged airframes—we believe our pioneering use of 3-D printed nylon has advanced design thinking in the UAV community world-wide,” said Andy Keane, a professor from Engineering and the Environment at the Univ. of Southampton.
The SULSA’s cruise speed is 58 mph, and its wingspan is the same as its length. Consisting of four major parts, the aircraft requires no tools for assembly.
“The Royal Navy’s Maritime Capability organization is very interested in conceptual applications of unmanned and highly automated systems,” said the Royal Navy Maritime Capability Commander Bow Wheaton, who was present for the SULSA’s launch.
The launch was possible due the partnership between the Navy and university called Project Triangle.
University engineers first flew the SULSA in 2011. It was printed on the EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine, and assembled using a “snap fit” technique. The university reported its top speed at 100 mph.
Prof. Jim Scanlan, who was one of the leads on the project, said the aircraft used a geodetic structure, developed by engineer and inventor Sir Barnes Wallis and used on the Vickers Wellington bomber. Scanlan called the structure “very stiff and lightweight, but very complex.”
“Radical advances in capability often start with small steps,” said First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, graduate of Univ. of Southampton. “The launch of a 3-D printed aircraft from HMS Mersey is a small glimpse into the innovation and forward thinking that is now embedded in our Navy’s approach.”
• CONFERENCE AGENDA ANNOUNCED:
The highly-anticipated educational tracks for the 2015 R&D 100 Awards & Technology Conference feature 28 sessions, plus keynote speakers Dean Kamen and Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason. Learn more.