Royal Navy ship flies 3D-printed UAV

A team from Southampton University has launched its SULSA unmanned aerial vehicle from a Royal Navy surface ship, a development claimed to mark an advance in sea launched UAVs.

Weighing 3kg and measuring 1.5m, the airframe was created on a 3D printer using laser sintered nylon and catapulted off HMS Mersey into the Wyke Regis Training Facility in Weymouth, before landing on Chesil Beach in Dorset.

The approximately 500m flight lasted less than few minutes but demonstrated the potential use of small lightweight UAVs that can be launched at sea.

SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) carried a small video camera to record its flight and Southampton researchers monitored the flight from their UAV control van with its on-board video-cameras.

Called Project Triangle the capability demonstration was led by Southampton researchers, making use of the coastal patrol and fisheries protection ship.

Prof Andy Keane, from Engineering and the Environment at Southampton University, said the UAV was flown under standard Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules for sub-7kg aircraft.

“The key to increased use of UAVs is the simple production of low cost and rugged airframes – we believe our pioneering used of 3D printed nylon has advanced design thinking in the UAV community world-wide,” he said in a statement.

In 2011 Southampton University engineers initially designed, and flew project SULSA, the world’s first 3D printed aircraft.

The UAV being trialled has a cruise speed of 50kts (58mph). The aircraft is printed in four major parts and can be assembled without the use of any tools.

The test flight came about because First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas is an alumnus of the University and has championed the Royal Navy’s involvement with Project Triangle, which resulted in the opportunity to provide a maritime platform for the test flight.

Adm Zambellas said: “Radical advances in capability often start with small steps. The launch of a 3D-printed aircraft from HMS Mersey is a small glimpse into the innovation and forward thinking that is now embedded in our Navy’s approach.

“It’s well known that our first squadron of remotely piloted aircraft have proven their worth in the Gulf, providing persistent airborne surveillance across huge areas of sea.”

In a separate development, students from Southampton University were this month crowned overall winners of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Challenge.

The challenge required 14 teams of undergraduates to design and build an UAS to fly a representative humanitarian mission, identify a drop zone, and then parachute a 1kg aid package.