Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Saturday, October 25, 2014
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3D Printed Plane Soars 

A flight-worthy 3D printed plane was created from scratch in less than a week by a British design team, as detailed in an article from New Scientist. The project participants, which include Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan from the University of Southampton, are aiming to demonstrate the viability of using 3D printing to create drone planes. A successful outcome will bode well for the continued use of this economically-friendly additive manufacturing process.

Sulsa UAVUsing 3D printing, these unmanned aircraft, also known as drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are able to move from the drawing board to takeoff in under a week. This is a boon for aircraft designers since the traditional design process often took too long and cost too much. The new technology allows designers to be more creative and try out different shapes. Says Keane: “With 3D printing we can go back to pure forms and explore the mathematics of airflow without being forced to put in straight lines to keep costs down.”

With a £5000 budget, the design team set out to create the Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft (Sulsa) with super-low-drag and a 1.5-metre-wingspan. They were assisted by UK-based 3D-printing firm, 3T RPD of Greenham Common, which created the UAV out of hard nylon. To keep complexity and weight down, Sulsa has no undercarriage, necessitating a catapult-style launch and a belly landing. An electric motor eliminates the need for starting equipment and heavy fuel.

When it came time for the real-world flight test, the researchers and their partners set out for a grass airstrip in the UK’s Wiltshire Downs. The plane, which took two days to design and five days to print, successfully transitioned from its catapult cradle to a stable air-borne trajectory, even surviving the wet weather conditions before coming in for a belly landing. Video below.

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