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3D-printed aircraft launched from warship

27 Jul 2015

University of Southampton engineers test fly and safely land “SULSA” – a laser-printed unmanned aircraft.

The British Royal Navy warship HMS Mersey provided the launch platform for the recent test flight of the 3D-printed “SULSA” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), developed and launched by engineers from the University of Southampton, UK.

Weighing 3kg and measuring 1.5m across, the airframe was created on a 3D printer using laser sintered nylon. It was catapulted off HMS Mersey into the Wyke Regis Training Facility in Weymouth, Dorset, before landing on nearby Chesil Beach.

The flight, which covered roughly 500m horizontally, lasted just a few minutes but the Southampton team says it demonstrated the potential of small lightweight UAVs. The aircraft carried a small video camera to record its flight and Southampton researchers monitored the flight from their UAV control van with its on-board video-cameras (see below).

Known as Project Triangle, the capability demonstration was led by Southampton researchers, making use of HMS Mersey, which is a coastal patrol and fisheries protection ship.

Professor Andy Keane, from Engineering and the Environment at the University of Southampton, commented, “The key to increased use of UAVs is the simple production of low cost and rugged airframes – we believe our pioneering used of 3D printed nylon has advanced design thinking in the UAV community world-wide.

In 2011, the University of Southampton engineers initially designed, and flew project SULSA, the world’s first entirely “printed” aircraft. With a wingspan of nearly 1.5m, the latest UAV being trialled has a cruise speed of 50kts (58mph/93kmh) but can fly almost silently. The aircraft is printed in four major parts and can be assembled without the use of any tools.

Naval interest

Watching the latest demonstration was the Royal Navy’s Commander Maritime Capability (Aviation), Cdr Bow Wheaton. He said: “The Royal Navy’s Maritime Capability organization is very interested in conceptual applications of unmanned and highly automated systems. We were delighted to assist the University of Southampton with development of their 3-D printed unmanned air vehicle and provide a ship for an embarked launch.”

Southampton alumnus, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas (who graduated in aeronautics, in 1980) has championed the Navy’s involvement with Project Triangle, which resulted in the opportunity to provide a maritime platform for the test flight. Adm Zambellas said, “Radical advances in capability often start with small steps. The launch of a 3D-printed aircraft from HMS Mersey is a small glimpse into the innovation and forward thinking that is now embedded in our Navy's approach.

“It is well known that our first squadron of remotely piloted aircraft have proven their worth in the Gulf, providing persistent airborne surveillance across huge areas of sea. We are after more and greater capability in this field, which delivers huge value for money. And, because it's new technology, with young people behind it, we're having fun doing it," Adm Zambellas added.

3D UAV in action

The following videos show (upper) the launch and (lower) the flight of Southampton’s 3D laser printed UAV:

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

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