Apr. 22, 2015 | By Simon

Among the many applications for 3D printing, the ability to rebuild or replicate existing three-dimensional structures for use in testing, simulation or demonstrations is perhaps amongst the most fascinating.  Whether the application is for creating a replica of a body part to be used as a visualization guide prior to a surgical procedure or for recreating lost or damaged pieces of historical art, the possibilities are nearly endless.

Of all the examples however, one of the more recent uses of additive manufacturing technology to create a replica of an existing object is perhaps one of the most unusual cases that most have likely heard about.  

A group of researchers from the Tongji University College of Aerospace Engineering and Applied Mechanics in Shanghai, China recently decided to recreate some historical Mayan relics that were expected to be over 1,000 years old.  However, these weren’t just any old relics - these actually looked like airplanes and were made long before airplanes even existed.  

A significant design feature on the small relics - which measure in at a tiny 150mm x 125mm - includes a vertical stabilizer seen on modern aircrafts.  Due to some conspiracy theorists who believe that the Mayan culture might have been more intelligent than today’s humans and/or supported by extraterrestrial beings, this single feature has raised a lot of questions.

Aiming to help figure out whether these relics could actually fly or not, the researchers at the college decided to test the feasibility of the design by scaling them up and reproducing the designs accurately using a combination of 3D printing and laser cutting.

To begin, the team modeled the small relics in CAD and then printed the models at a scale of 10:1 using an FFF-based 3D printer to use as a reference guide for a larger model that would be 25 times larger than the original relics.  

To create the interior support structure for the larger aircraft, the team split up the sections into components that could be made on the laser cutter.  With this data, the team also took the opportunity to utilize various simulation tools and tested the aircraft in a virtual environment for weak spots and overall structural strength.   

When they had finished assembling the remote controlled final model, the design featured a wingspan of over 1.5 meters that was propelled by a two-blade wooden propeller and was powered by an 18.5V lithium battery.  

However the biggest test was yet to come - would the final design fly?

Yesterday, April 21st, the team was able to put the airplane design to the test - and wouldn't you know it - the plane actually had a successful test flight. Just minutes into the flight, the ancient Mayan airplane design was even capable of making complicated nosedive and side-flying stunt moves, among others before landing safely back on the ground.

"The aerodynamic performance analysis shows that this ancient aircraft design has very good aerodynamic performance and stability." said Shen Haijun, a lead researcher on the project.

"The purpose of this project was to recreate an ancient aircraft and hopefully reveal its true origin while also showcasing the magic of ancient human civilization and their contribution to aircraft design (translated)."

Whether or not the aerodynamic performance of the aircraft can be tied back to the Mayan civilization from centuries ago or whether it’s just pure coincidence is up for speculation, but if nothing else - the project is a great example of how 3D printing can be used in just about any application to create replicas for testing, simulation and demonstrations.  



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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precious wrote at 11/26/2015 10:20:23 AM:

i am not sure what are they talking about i was just looking for a model one all they just give me was a stuipd air craft

Bill wrote at 4/27/2015 7:38:04 PM:

I'm not sure of the value of taking the aerodynamics that we know and applying them to shapes from the past. The original items are not aerodynamic at all and don't even include simple concepts such as the airfoil. We our knowledge base, it is easy for us to determine which sections of the "aircraft" need to have a particular shape, but adding them to their old art doesn't prove anything.

Jon Green wrote at 4/23/2015 4:02:41 PM:

I think it far more likely that, if it was indeed a Mayan aircraft of some kind, it would have been a kite rather than a free-flying craft. I could well imagine Mayans flying kites, much as the ancient Indians and Chinese did.

Lindsley wrote at 4/23/2015 2:07:56 PM:

It could be flying fishes, that already have good aerodynamics...

Cheshire wrote at 4/22/2015 8:46:20 PM:

Thanks Simon. Thank you researchers from Tongji University College of Aerospace Engineering and Applied Mechanics. Coincidence my ass, feasible airplane designs don't pop up because its easy.

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