Southampton University has been involved in developing 3D printed aircraft for some years.

University UAVs take to the skies for Royal Navy tests

Early next year the Royal Navy will take three UAVs for testing in the South Atlantic. What marks the trial out as significant is that the aircraft have been created on a 3D printer using laser sintered nylon by the University of Southampton.

“He’s the person with the strongest stomach,’ says Jim Scanlan, lead academic on the project and professor of design within engineering and the environment at the university. “Well, would you want to be in waters off the South Atlantic at that time of year?”

The trial follows the successful launch of the UAV, called SULSA (Southampton University Laser-Sintered Aircraft), off the Royal Navy warship HMS Mersey on a Dorset beach last year. Weighing just 3kg and measuring 1.5m, it flew for roughly 500 metres and carried a small video camera to record its flight, which was monitored by Southampton researchers. Professor Scanlan explains that the purpose of the testing is to demonstrate SULSA’s potential as “a pair of eyes” for the Royal Navy. There is also no shortage of applications for the commercial world as well.

“For instance, oil companies that send their tankers around the world are generally worried about three things: icebergs, pirates and mammals and want to avoid all three,” he says. “This could be really useful for them.”

Leaders in 3D-printed aircraft research

The university has been involved in developing 3D-printed aircraft for some years and has a research team working on projects for a number of organisations. It has also set up a doctoral training centre focusing on this area. One of the most exciting current developments is that the teams will soon be able to use multi-material printing so they can print wires, aerials and systems as part of the design.

“Not all of our aircraft are 3D printed and the biggest one is around 60 per cent 3D printed,” explains Professor Scanlan. “At the moment we make this lovely sophisticated lightweight structure and then spend a week making all the wiring and soldering. It’s labour-intensive and error prone. Our vision is that we print all the wiring into the structure at the same time and that will be a huge step forward.”

While the technology is at the cutting edge, Scanlan explains that the flexibility of the design and printing process means it has been able to recycle some of the innovation that came about in World War Two.

Taking ideas from World War Two aircraft

“Barnes Wallis developed a very efficient geodesic structure in the Wellington bomber but it was difficult to manufacture,” he says, also highlighting the double curvature wing on the Spitfire, which made it aerodynamically efficient but again expensive and difficult to manufacture. “Both those old ideas had been parked but can now be reborn as 3D printing has removed a constraint,” he says.

Professor Scanlan, who has worked in various roles in the aerospace industry, says when he moved into academia there was always a frustration that you could teach aeronautical engineering but couldn’t build “big aeroplanes”. More than ten years ago he introduced the building of “essentially toy aeroplanes”, which could fly, into the curriculum. “What we now call UAVs or drones,” he says, adding that there are currently 12 teams of undergraduates from across the engineering and electronics disciplines building autonomous systems. “These use a huge amount of 3D printing so students now use that technology routinely.”

As well as the naval trial, it looks like SULSA and similar craft will gain plenty of exposure in 2016. The university will be flying its aircraft at the Farnborough International Air Show in July and they will also feature in the first UK Robotics Week which runs from 25 June to 1 July. As a founding partner of the EPSRC UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network (UK-RAS Network), which is running the event, the university will take part in a series of activities during the week including a number of robotic challenges.

Knowledge and expertise

In the meantime, the various project teams will be tweaking and evolving their aircraft. Professor Scanlan adds that with SULSA currently “semi-disposable”, one of their aims is to make it recoverable following a mission when it could ditch into the sea. “We’re adding water-proofing so it doesn’t mind going for a swim,” he says.

With a high level of interest from the military and commercial worlds, there’s no doubt about how important the university’s knowledge and expertise in this area is considered but it isn’t just about attracting the eye of big organisations. Professor Scanlan explains that one of the university’s aims is also to stimulate “a whole set of SMEs” around this subject area and this has already begun to happen.

The autopilot for SULSA is provided by SkyCircuits in Salisbury, a company founded by ex-PhD student Matt Bennett (Matt has since moved on to be managing director of another company). The university also has a close relationship with South Coast-based Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASV), which was set up by another ex-graduate.

“This is the full technology-transfer cycle that we want to see,” says Professor Scanlan. “It starts with inspiring young children to do science and engineering, through to a degree, getting them excited about technology and then founding a small business. That’s the story that really matters.”


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