While we see quite a lot of 3D printed drones pass by, most of those are just fun toys rather than military machines. And yet the British navy has just shown us that 3D printed drones can definitely be a tremendous military asset. Last Tuesday, British warship HMS Mersey set out off the south coast of England with the express purpose of testing a 3D printed drone. While a simple plastic device you and I could assemble, the British navy are seriously considering incorporating 3D printed drones into the warship arsenal for autonomous flying missions in emergency situations.
Granted, this 3D printed drone was slightly larger than we normally come across, but that doesn’t make this application less impressive. Weighing approximately three kilograms and featuring a typical airplane design, this cheap drone was 3D printed on shore, assembled aboard the warship, and catapulted into the sky by a three-meter wide catapult. This drone flew autonomously between a few programmed points at sea for about five minutes, before being piloted to a safe landing on the pebbly beach nearby.
As Geoff Hayward, the UAV desk officer at the Maritime Warfare Centre, explained, this little project was meant to demonstrate how disposable, very cheap drones can be manufactured and quickly programmed onboard a warship. They can, he says, be adapted by the crew members to suit new missions they come across, for instance during natural disasters.
Hayward was also present at the test, and argued that conventional mass production techniques aren’t flexible or affordable enough for manufacturing drones in small numbers aboard a ship. 3D printers, obviously, are far more suitable. To prove that, however, they first needed to perform in the stormy conditions of the sea as it wasn’t clear how a cheap 3D printed drone would do. ‘As far as we know, it was a world first,’ Hayward said of the succesful test run. The drone itself was developed in collaboration with scientists and a 3D printing company, and is also suitable for civilian use.
The drone itself is known as Sulsa and has an impressive wingspan of 1.5 meters, with a top speed of 100 miles and hour. This propeller-driven machine was developed by aeronautical engineers at the University of Southampton, and was 3D printed in nylon four parts using SLS 3D printing technology. All that was added was a battery, control electronics, a propeller, and a motor, though a number of sensors, cameras and radar equipment can also be added.
As professor Jim Scalan of the University of Southampton explained, this is essentially a cheaper version of already existent ship-launched drones. ‘The navy thinks today’s ship-launched UAVs are too expensive,’ he says, adding that this destroys the advantage a drone should bring to the table. ‘Whoever is operating [Boeing’s Scan Eagle] is always petrified they might lose one,’ he says as an example. ‘If its single engine coughs, it goes for a swim.’ But unlike those, the Sulsa doesn’t cost millions to create – just a few thousand dollars, Scalan adds.
The only downside of the Sulsa is that it can only fly for 40 minutes or so, though that should be more than enough to locate pirates at a distance of 10 miles, or find survivors from shipwrecks. ‘If they shoot at it, who cares? You send another one up,’ says Scanlan. He is therefore already envisioning ships with enough parts to launch 50 drones into the air, as well as warships equipped with 3D printers and materials to make spare parts for particularly challenging missions.
Though much more work needs to be done before that will be a reality, the Sulsa is already proving its usefulness out at sea. ‘Within five years, ships could be equipped with multi-material 3D printers able to produce entire unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), tailored to specific missions,’ the Institutions of Mechanical Engineers said of the project. The Ministry of Defence is also convinced already, Kevin Franks of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory added. ‘The ability to use additive manufacture to make a task-specific tool, component, device or even a vehicle out in the field or in a space-constrained moving ship, could have significant impact on the armed forces’ shape and capability.’ The military usefulness of drones, in short, only seems to be increasing.