Engineers design and fly ‘world’s first printed aircraft’

Engineers at Southampton University have designed and flown what is claimed to be the world’s first ‘printed’ aircraft.

The SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) is an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) whose entire structure has been printed, including wings, integral control surfaces and access hatches. It was printed on an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser-sintering machine, which fabricates plastic or metal objects, building up the item layer by layer.

According to Southampton University, no fasteners were used and all equipment was attached using snap-fit techniques so that the entire aircraft can be put together without tools in minutes.

The electric-powered aircraft, with a 2m wingspan, has a top speed of nearly 100mph (161km/h), but when in cruise mode it is almost silent. The aircraft is also equipped with a miniature autopilot developed by Dr Matt Bennett, one of the members of the team.

Laser sintering allows the designer to create shapes and structures that would normally involve costly traditional manufacturing techniques. This technology allows a highly tailored aircraft to be developed from concept to first flight in days. Using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, this would normally take months. Furthermore, because no tooling is required for manufacture, changes to the shape and scale of the aircraft can be made with no extra cost.

This project has been led by Prof Andy Keane and Prof Jim Scanlan from the university’s Computational Engineering and Design Research group.

Keane said: ‘Aerodynamicists have, for decades, known that elliptical wings offer drag benefits. The Spitfire wing was recognised as an extremely efficient design but it was notoriously difficult and expensive to manufacture. Again, laser sintering removes the manufacturing constraint associated with shape complexity and, in the SULSA aircraft, there is no cost penalty in using an elliptical shape.’

SULSA is part of the EPSRC-funded DECODE project, which is employing the use of leading-edge manufacturing techniques, such as laser sintering, to demonstrate their use in the design of UAVs.