The British Navy made a self-proclaimed world’s first on Tuesday as they launched a cheap drone from the Royal Navy ship HMS Mersey that was manufactured entirely on board using a 3D printer.
The airplane-style drone, which was just shy of seven pounds, was launched from a catapult and flew for five minutes through preprogrammed waypoints before landing on a beach. The point of the demonstration was to show how these sort of disposable drones could be assembled quickly onboard a ship. This would save time and money as the assembly is quick and efficient, using little resources or material. Reaction time to missions such as natural disasters would become more efficient with widespread use of the manufacturing technology.
UAV desk officer Geoff Hayward said that the members onboard the HMS Mersey weren’t sure whether the drone made of low-cost material could handle the windy conditions and rolling swells of the ocean. Yet the technology was a success and demonstrated that larger scale systems will likely find their way into military, commercial and civilian use in short order.
Aeronautical engineers at the University of Southampton designed the 1.5-meter-wingspan drone known as Sulsa. The drone was made by fusing four parts together that were made by a 3D printer. The only things not made from the printer were the drone’s battery, propeller, control electronics, and motor. Everything else, including the rudders and ailerons were made with the printer. The printed drone can even fly up to 100 miles per hour.
Typically, launching drones from ships is a million dollar process, according to Jim Scanlan, a university professor at Southampton who worked on Sulsa. The Navy is trying to cut these costs he says.
Unlike most drones, The Sulsa costs just a few thousand dollars to be printed. Although It can only fly for 40 minutes, Scanlan argues this time can be sufficient for missions requiring a quick eye in the sky. The best part is, users don’t have to be too worried about losing a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment, unlike existing multimillion dollar drone systems.
Although improvements are still underway, Scanlan envisions printed drones being used on ships with personalized sensors for different missions. In addition to carrying all the necessary equipment such as the parts and the printers, a way to keep the printers level out at sea remains a problem that will take more research and testing to properly solve.