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Laser-Printed Drone Aircraft Developed, Flown

SULSA aircraft (University of Southampton)

SULSA aircraft (University of Southampton)

Engineers at University of Southampton in the U.K. have designed and flown an unmanned aircraft made with a three-dimensional laser printing process. The university worked with 3T RPD Ltd, a company in Newbury, U.K., for the aircraft’s manufacturing.

The Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA) project led by engineering professors Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan developed an unmanned air vehicle whose entire structure has been printed, including wings, integral control surfaces, and access hatches. It was printed on a nylon laser sintering machine at 3T RPD, which fabricates plastic or metal objects, building up the item layer by layer.

Laser sintering allows the designer to create shapes and structures that would normally involve costly and time-consuming traditional manufacturing techniques, taking a custom-designed aircraft from concept to first flight in days. With conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, the job would normally take months.

Because no tooling is required for manufacture, radical changes to the shape and scale of the aircraft can be made with no extra cost. The sintering process requires no fasteners and all equipment was attached using snap-fit techniques so the entire aircraft can be assembled without tools in minutes.

The electric-powered craft has a 2-meter wingspan and a top speed of nearly 100 miles per hour, but is almost silent when in cruise mode. The aircraft is also equipped with a miniature autopilot developed by Matt Bennett, a member of the SULSA team.

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