Apr 18, 2016 | By Alec

It seems like 3D printed drones can really be found everywhere, even in the Antarctic. The British Royal Navy has just revealed that one of their Antarctic ice patrol ships, the HMS Protector, successfully launched the tiny SULSA 3D printed drone from its decks. The drone did a lot more than take nice shots of icy wastelands, as it is actually a navigation drone that can help ships find their way through the thick ice of frozen seas.

It’s the first time the Royal Navy has launched a 3D printed drone in that remote area of the world, but certainly not the first time they took a 3D printed drone into operation. The Navy’s partially 3D printed ScanEagle drones have been used by security patrols in the Gulf for a few years now. They also have numerous quadcopters in operation, but the Navy has been looking to expand their drone fleet considerably. This SULSA navigation drone is one of the first results of these new efforts, and was previously tested by the HMS Mersey off the coast of Dorset, Southern England, last summer.

But as you can imagine, the conditions in Dorset are hardly comparable to the environment of the Antarctic, so this successful test is quite a result. The SULSA was more than capable to provide real-time data to the engineers aboard the HMS Protector and proved itself as an excellent long-range reconnaissance tool. A regular quadcopter for short-range missions was also tested. “This trial of these low-cost but highly versatile aircraft has been an important first step in establishing the utility of unmanned aerial vehicles in this region,” said Captain Rory Bryan, the commanding officer of the HMS Protector. “It’s demonstrated to me that this is a capability that I can use to great effect.”

The SULSA itself was made by researchers from Southampton University, which also explains the drone’s name (Southampton University Laser-Sintered Aircraft). The university, as you might know, is also a trend setter when it comes to drones, and even has a master’s degree program for UAV development. The SULSA consists of four main body parts, all manufactured using an EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering 3D printer. Only a motor and some electronics needed to be added. According to the Navy, the SULSA was considerably less high-tech than other drones currently in operation, but it is still far more impressive than an average 3D printed drone. With a top speed of nearly 60mph, a battery life of 30 minutes and featuring completely noiseless engines, it costs £7,000 (nearly $10,000 USD) to make. The SULSA is also completely watertight, and can be fished out of the water and reused should it run out of power mid-flight.

The results of the successful tests have been sent to the Royal Navy headquarters in Portsmouth, to the Navy’s UAV unit in Culdrose and to the Maritime Warfare Centre at HMS Collingwood, and experts were impressed. “I am delighted with the successful deployment of small unmanned aerial vehicles from HMS Protector in the Antarctic,” said Commodore James Morley, the Navy’s Assistant Chief of Staff Maritime Capability. “The whole team has overcome significant hurdles to demonstrate the enormous utility of these aircraft for affordable and persistent surveillance and reconnaissance from ships – even in the environmentally challenging environment of the Antarctic.”

The Southampton team behind the SULSA was also very pleased with the results, and argued that drone developers need to use 3D printing more often. “Not all of our aircraft are 3D printed and the biggest one is around 60 per cent 3D printed. At the moment we make this lovely sophisticated lightweight structure and then spend a week making all the wiring and soldering. It’s labor-intensive and error prone. Our vision is that we 3D print all the wiring into the structure at the same time and that will be a huge step forward,” said professor Jim Scanlan, the project’s head scientist. 3D printing, he went on to say, even has the ability to recreate the elliptical wing structures of very large WWII aircraft, such as the Wellington bomber and the Spitfire. “Both those old ideas had been parked but can now be reborn as 3D printing has removed a constraint,” he said.

Commodore Morley went on to say that this 3D printed drone test is just a first step in the right direction. “Although this was a relatively short duration trial to measure the relative merits of fixed and rotary wing embarked systems, we are continuing to review our options for acquisition of maritime unmanned aerial vehicles in the future,” he concluded.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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