Jun 16, 2016 | By Tess

Our readers will likely remember Airbus’ 3D printed mini plane, THOR, which drew much attention at the ILA Berlin Air Show just a couple weeks ago. The unmanned aircraft, made almost entirely from 3D printed parts (except for its electrical components), was successfully flown this past November and has marked a significant step in the integration of 3D printing for the aerospace industry. More than that, however, Airbus will be using their innovative 3D printed mini aircraft as a testbed for new airplane technologies and low risk experiments. According to the European aircraft manufacturer, they will use THOR to efficiently test different 3D printed structural parts, advanced aerodynamics, and even artificial intelligence.

THOR, which stands for Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality, is a windowless aircraft measuring only 4 meters in length and weighing a mere 21kg. The almost fully 3D printed aircraft is powered by two 1.5 kW electric propellers. And though the small plane will not be put into production, it presents a perfect model for the testing and development of 3D printed parts and other aircraft innovations.

Detlev Konigorski, a member of Airbus’ Emerging Technologies & Concepts in Germany, explains, “This mini aircraft does not represent an actual airliner design Airbus is considering, rather it is a platform to enable low-risk and and fast-track development of different technologies in real flying conditions. The first version was to test whether the slogan ‘Print me an airplane’ can be converted into reality.”

THOR offers aerospace developers a time and cost efficient way of creating testable models. According to Airbus, 3D printing technologies have offered them a much faster way of manufacturing the test aircraft, allowing them to print the plane’s 60 structural parts in just seven weeks, and to assemble them and tweak the electrical components in under two weeks. That means, in just 9 weeks, a new THOR model could be printed, assembled, and flight ready.

With the ILA Berlin Show wrapped up, Airbus will resume testing THOR to gain information and generate data for basic properties like altitude, speed, and acceleration. Additionally, at the new Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL) in Hamburg, Germany, more THOR models are currently being printed and built. The upcoming mini aircrafts will also feature a “modular design”, which will allow them to be tested with a number of different structural properties.

As Airbus explains on their website, the second generation THOR model will be able to accommodate interchangeable wings. For instance, researchers could sequentially test the aircraft with a hexagonal wing structure, with a metallic aluminium wing, and even with a flexible wing manufactured from durable carbon-fiber reinforced plastics.

Though there is no mention of how long the testing process could take, once this level of wing testing is complete, the researchers at Airbus will go on to test artificial intelligence with the small aircraft. This future stage of testing, which hopes to see THOR land on its own, without external instructions by identifying obstacles and environmental elements, will be conducted in association with Airbus Defence and Space, a part of the Airbus Group parent company.

Finally, because the 3D printed aircrafts are so easy to manufacture, the research teams at Airbus are afforded a “willing-to-fail” mentality, which could ultimately result in some truly innovative and cool developments within the aircraft industry. Konigorski explains, “If a THOR aircraft takes off, and after 30 feet makes a nose dive back the ground, our attitude is: ‘good, let’s sweep it off the runway and come up with a better idea.’ In a few weeks, we can print a new aircraft!”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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