Engineering scientists at the University of Southampton are testing an aircraft that can carry scientific instruments into the Earth's atmosphere using an unmanned platform. This aircraft is the world's first air vehicle made fully from rapid prototyping technology.
The aircraft is part of the ASTRA (Atmospheric Science Through Robotic Aircraft) project. ASTRA investigates new technologies for making low cost observations of the physical parameters of the atmosphere. They develop and test platforms capable of delivering scientific instruments to altitudes ranging from the planetary boundary layer (hundreds of meters) to the upper stratosphere (up to 50km). Therefore observations can to be made in highly polluted environments (e.g., volcanic ash clouds) or extreme weather conditions.
The aircraft aims to showcase how scientists can use 3D printing technology to rapid prototype a bespoke high altitude platform in lost-cost and a very short design and manufacture cycle. This aircraft is used to send a payload with atmospheric monitoring equipment into the upper atmosphere.
(the ASTRA Atom)
The ASTRA Atom, dubbed for the entire structure of the balloon-borne pod, has been printed on the university's 3D printer. The aircraft have to be able to opearte in the low pressure, low density environment of the upper stratosphere, as well as in the dense and turbulent lower troposphere. So the weight have to be minimized. And Microsoft's rapid electronic prototyping toolkit .NET Gadgeteer has been used to build the on-board data logging equipment. It downloads the real-time and large amounts of data collected by the sensor on board the aircraft download from very high altitude platforms.
The two foam orbits for protecting the aircraft are made using a computer-controlled hot wire cutter. They are designed to break apart when the scientific payload returns to Earth and absorb the energy of the impact.
Dr András Sóbester, University of Southampton Lecturer and a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow, says: “The rapid prototyping of bespoke platforms like the ASTRA Atom enables scientists to deliver a variety of instruments far into the stratosphere after a very short design and manufacture cycle. This may be required for testing purposes, as part of an iterative development process or there may be a sudden need to make observations of phenomena such as volcano eruptions or nuclear fallout. In such cases, rapid prototyping translates into fast response and timely measurements that could not be obtained in other ways.”
Dr Steven Johnston, from the University of Southampton’s Microsoft Institute of High Performance Computing, adds: “The challenges of developing such systems are varied as the aircraft has to be able to operate in the harsh, low pressure, low density environment of the upper stratosphere, as well as in the dense and turbulent lower troposphere. Additionally, weight and power requirements of all on-board systems have to be minimized. The need to keep weight and cost to a minimum, while providing bespoke architectures demands novel manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing, too.
“Using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, developing such platforms would normally take months. Furthermore, because no tooling is required for manufacture, radical changes to the shape and scale of the ‘pod’ can be made with no extra cost.”
The ASTRA Atom aircraft had its first flight on 7 December at Microsoft Research's eighth annual Think Computer Science event at The Imperial War Museum in Duxford.
Below is the videoclip of ASTRA featured on Microsoft Showcase.
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