Dec 3, 2015 | By Alec

The skies have always attracted humans, and I’m not talking about a delayed commercial airliner with a layover in some horrible airport. To be as a free as bird, and go wherever you please – it has been the impetus behind human flight in the first place. Well, now a team of Singaporean students can do exactly that. With the help of 3D printing, the team from the National University of Singapore have built Snowstorm the personal flying machine that seats one and can stay in the skies for up to five minutes. Not exactly as free as a bird, but its close.

The name itself is somewhat ironic, because Singapore doesn’t exactly know snow – instead its inhabitants make use with a special Snow City indoor center, but perhaps that’s exactly the point of the name – to make it seem impossible, but yet very real. And this all-electric flying machine is very real indeed, and has taken a whole year to design and build by a team of eight engineering students from the NUS, under the auspices of Frogworks – a collaboration between the university’s Faculty of Engineering’s Design-Centric Programme (DCP) and the University Scholars Programme (USP). The idea is to engage students in research-backed construction projects with a green edge, and has already resulted in electric motorcycles and yachts.

However, those pale in comparison to the Snowstorm. Featuring 24 electric motors – each powering a propeller, this battery-powered machine can carry up to 150 pounds into the air and features a sturdy hexagonal frame and inflatable landing gear. It is also reportedly quite easy to operate, and the team is already dreaming of taking to the skies with a fleet of recreational machines in a safe indoor environments.

According to project supervisor Dr Joerg Weigl from the Design-Centric Programme, this machine proves that individual flight isn’t just real in science fiction. ‘A common trope in popular science fiction is the projection of humans flying on our own -- think the Jetsons, or even Back to the Future. NUS' Snowstorm shows that a personal flying machine is a very real possibility, primarily as a means to fulfil our dreams of flying within a recreational setting,’ he said.

But of course it was everything but easy to build, and was first done on a 1/6th scale before going for a full-size machine. Combining student skills in fields such as computer engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, it features a complex frame, a detailed control and stabilization system and of course needs proper electric energy management. In the current setup, each of the three batteries can independently power the entire Snowstorm even when another malfunctions (together providing a total power of 52.8kW). Each of the motors drives a 76 cm propeller, while most of the machine is built from aluminium beams and carbon fiber plates. Numerous parts, including the landing gear mount, have also been 3D printed.

What’s more, the machine is also quite safe. A five-point harness secures the pilot in place. A flight control system has also been programmed enabling easy flying, while a number of automated flight modes (based on drone settings) are also in place. Think altitude hold, loiter and position modes. Should the pilot lose control of the machine for whatever reason, it can even be operated from the ground.

In short, the Singaporean students seem to have thought of everything, and they further said it was a fantastic challenge. ‘Designing and building Snowstorm was a great learning opportunity for us. The toughest part of this engineering challenge was ensuring a good thrust to weight ratio to allow the craft to lift a person into the air. At every stage of our design, we constantly had to balance and consider trade-offs between the types of materials, their characteristics and weight. In some instances, we even 3D-printed parts, such as our landing gear mount, just so we can have a customized and optimal fit,’ said engineering student Shawn Sim.

The engineering faculty was also very pleased with the exciting approach of the students. ‘Recent advances in motors and battery technology has made it possible for us to literally take to the skies,’ the other supervisor and Associate Professor Martin Henz said. ‘The NUS team will continue to fine-tune Snowstorm, working on mechanical safety measures, propeller and motor configurations, and control software and hardware to achieve the high levels of safety, simplicity and performance required for recreational use by the general public,’ he added. But the real question, obviously, is: when will we be able to fly in it? Well, the answer at least isn’t ‘never’, as the NUS team hopes to improve the machine over the coming year, and if successful they will look into commercialization opportunities.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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