3D-Printed UAV-Noah Eat Your Heart Out

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It’s straight out of the classic Biblical tale, Noah’s Ark—when Noah deploys a dove from his vessel for a reconnaissance mission, post-flood. Except that the ark is a Royal Navy warship and the dove is a 3D-printed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Last Tuesday, the HMS Mersey launched its Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA), the world’s first 3D-printed UAV, off the coast of Dorset, England—an aerodynamic feat that could revolutionize the economics of aircraft design.

SULSA was printed using laser-sintered nylon and is capable of flying up to 58 mph in near-perfect silence. With a wingspan of 1.5 meters, the six and a half pound craft flew 500 meters into the Wyke Regis Training Facility before landing on Chesil Beach.

The UAV is the brainchild of Project Triangle, a University of Southampton research team that has been working on perfecting designs for a 3D-printed UAV since 2011. Engineers wanted to focus on how a simple, yet rugged UAV frame could be constructed at a low cost. (Although other ship-launched drones exist, they are larger and cost millions of dollars.)

The frame itself required no assembly. Accessory equipment, such as the automation system and on-board camera, were attached, post-print, using “snap fit” techniques so that the entire aircraft could be assembled quickly and without any tools.

3D printing also afforded engineers with considerable design flexibility. For example, laser sintering has allowed the team to inexpensively manufacture an elliptical wing platform, which is known to offer drag benefits.

SULSA’s successful flight has demonstrated how small, lightweight UAVs can be easily created, assembled, and launched at sea should necessity arise (for example, in the aftermath of a natural disaster—Biblical or otherwise).

Check out the epic flight for yourself:

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