World's first 3D-printed plane goes to work in Antarctica

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The HMS Protector's SULSA aircraft, scouting the waters of Antarctica(Credit: University of Southampton)

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First announced five years ago, the unmanned Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA) bears the distinction of being the world's first aircraft to have an entirely 3D-printed body. While it's an impressive title, the little electric airplane has now been put to practical use – it's been scouting routes for an icebreaker in Antarctica.

SULSA's four main body parts are manufactured using an EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine, which builds up items through a successive layering technique. Once created, those nylon components can then simply be snapped together by hand within a few minutes – of course, a motor and electronics do also have to be added.

The finished product weighs 3 kg (6.6 lb), has a 2-meter (6.6-foot) wingspan, and a top speed of almost 100 mph (161 km/h). Each individual SULSA is worth about £7,000 (US$9,944), which the University of Southampton points out is less than an hour's flying time by a manned naval helicopter.

After flight tests off Britain's Dorset coast last summer, the aircraft was recently put to much more intensive use over the waters of Antarctica. There, it was making 30-minute flights from a catapult on the deck of the Royal Navy ice patrol ship HMS Protector, cruising at about 60 mph (96 km/h) while scouting the best path forward through the ice – although it does have an autopilot, in this case it was remotely controlled in real time via a laptop on the ship, transmitting real-time aerial video from its onboard camera.

Every flight ended with it landing in the water, then being fished out by the crew for subsequent re-use. Shorter-duration reconnaissance flights were managed using a quadcopter, which was able to land back on the Protector.

"This trial of these low-cost but highly versatile aircraft has been an important first step in establishing the utility of unmanned aerial vehicles in this region," says HMS Protector's Captain Rory Bryan, regarding SULSA. "It's demonstrated to me that this is a capability that I can use to great effect."

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