Southampton engineers fly the world's first 'printed' aircraft

July 28, 2011
Southampton engineers fly the world's first 'printed' aircraft
SULSA is the world's first "printed" aircraft. Credit: University of Southampton

Engineers at the University of Southampton have designed and flown the world's first 'printed' aircraft, which could revolutionise the economics of aircraft design.

The SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered ) plane is an (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.

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 2-metres wingspan, has a top speed of nearly 100 miles per hour, but when in cruise mode 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, radical changes to the shape and scale of the aircraft can be made with no extra cost.

This project has been led by Professors Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan from the University's Computational Engineering and Design Research group.

Professor Scanlon says: "The flexibility of the laser sintering process allows the design team to re-visit historical techniques and ideas that would have been prohibitively expensive using conventional manufacturing. One of these ideas involves the use of a Geodetic structure. This type of structure was initially developed by Barnes Wallis and famously used on the Vickers Wellington bomber which first flew in 1936. This form of structure is very stiff and lightweight, but very complex. If it was manufactured conventionally it would require a large number of individually tailored parts that would have to be bonded or fastened at great expense."

Professor Keane adds: "Another design benefit that laser sintering provides is the use of an elliptical wing planform. 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.

The University of Southampton has been at the forefront of UAV development since the early 1990s, when work began on the Autosub programme at its waterfront campus at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. A battery powered submarine travelled under sea ice in more than 300 voyages to map the North Sea, and assess herring stocks.

Now, the University is launching a groundbreaking course which enables students to take a Master's Degree in unmanned autonomous vehicle (UAV) design.

This is the first scheme of its kind and from September 2011, postgraduates can take part in a one-year programme covering the design, manufacture and operation of robotic vehicles. The degree will cover marine, land based and pilotless aircraft, typically used in environments that are deemed unsafe or uneconomic, such as exploration under sea ice, or monitoring gas emissions from volcanic eruptions. NASA expects UAVs to become 'standard tools' in fields such as agriculture, earth observation and climate monitoring.

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1 / 5 (1) Jul 28, 2011
Revolutionary really.
not rated yet Jul 29, 2011
It really is revolutionary isn't it? I wonder how long till you can print something like this with the reprap!
1 / 5 (1) Jul 29, 2011
Now we just need to figure out 3 things:

1) How to print with multiple materials
2) How to print at (near) atomic resolution in an acceptable amount of time (probably through massively parallel heads)
3) How to print in zero-g so that we can create any kind of geometry (currently the geometry is somewhat limited by the direction of printing).

The third point is currently being alleviated by the use of supporting structures which need to be removd when the product is finished - but those still do not allow all types of geometries.

But whenw have all that - and none of these points seems too far fetched - the we could see a radical shift in production to factories which can basically build anything from scratch.
3 / 5 (2) Jul 29, 2011
Great, another dual use technology for every military in the world to use to quickly design and validate weaponry. This can be applied to test missiles, aircraft, ordinance, and God knows what else. I love how we're advertising this to the whole world so that every petty dictator can now have a cost effective way to develop their weapons.
3 / 5 (2) Jul 29, 2011
love how we're advertising this to the whole world so that every petty dictator can now have a cost effective way to develop their weapons.

Rapid pototyping technology is neither a state secret nor rocket science. Not much you can do about that being used for all kinds of things, anyways.
not rated yet Jul 29, 2011
"Laser sintering allows the designer to create shapes and structures that would normally involve costly traditional manufacturing techniques."

Instead is used costly non-traditional manufacturing techniques."
not rated yet Aug 04, 2011
Sorry, beat them to it. I made my printed phone bill fly - all it needed was some folds.

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