The Southampton University's Laser-Sintered Aircraft has been used by the Royal Navy for navigation in the Antarctic

3D-printed UAV explores Antarctic in service of Royal Navy

A low-cost 3D-printed UAV has made its debut in the service of the Royal Navy, assisting with navigation through the Antarctic.

The drone, developed by engineers from the University of Southampton, was launched from the patrol ship HMS Protector to scout the way for the ship through the ice-covered sea.

This is the first time the Royal Navy has used an unmanned aerial vehicle for such a task in this part of the world. Previously, the navy has been operating Boeing’s ScanEagle drones to provide imagery to ships patrolling in the Gulf area.

The UAV, dubbed SULSA for Southampton University Laser-Sintered Aircraft, worked in tandem with a quadcopter. While the quadcopter was used for short-range reconnaissance missions, the Southampton drone was sent for longer patrols.

"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, Protector's commanding officer. "It's demonstrated to me that this is a capability that I can use to great effect."

At £7,000 per drone, SULSA is much cheaper and also much simpler than currently commercially available surveillance drones. It consists of four 3D-printed nylon-based parts that can be assembled without any tools. According to the Southampton team, SULSA is the world’s first printable plane.

During the trials the plane, controlled from a laptop aboard the ship, was able to provide the crew with high quality imagery of the sea ahead in real time.

"The series of flights conducted by Southampton staff in conjunction with the Royal Navy from HMS Protector has been a great success,” said Andy Keane, Professor of Computational Engineering at the University of Southampton. “These flights have shown just what can be achieved with smart design and low cost digital manufacture."

The 3kg aircraft, capable of reaching the speed of almost 100km/h, was previously tested off the coast of Dorset. However, the Antarctic mission put the plane through its paces.

"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.

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