3D Printing

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

World's first 3D-printed plane...
The HMS Protector's SULSA aircraft, scouting the waters of Antarctica
The HMS Protector's SULSA aircraft, scouting the waters of Antarctica
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A SULSA aircraft is prepared for launch onboard the HMS Protector
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A SULSA aircraft is prepared for launch onboard the HMS Protector
The SULSA heads out over the icy waters
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The SULSA heads out over the icy waters
The HMS Protector's SULSA aircraft, scouting the waters of Antarctica
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The HMS Protector's SULSA aircraft, scouting the waters of Antarctica
The SULSA is retrieved by Protector crew members
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The SULSA is retrieved by Protector crew members
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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.

The SULSA is retrieved by Protector crew members
The SULSA is retrieved by Protector crew members

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."

Source: University of Southampton

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4 comments
alan c
It's an achievement for a printed aircraft, but it would be far cheaper to use off-the-shelf RC models. A 2m electric glider with radio and several batteries would start at £200 to £400 and I imagine the FPV gear would not take the total cost over £1500 to £2000.
JimRD
I could have made a wing just as tough from a fiberglass fishing rod and epp foam for about 50 bucks.
mhpr262
I wonder why they don't land it in a net stretched across the aft deck of the ship. Lowering that boat just to have the crew fish that thing out of the water after only 30 min flight time must be huge pain.
Tim Jonson
I bet there have been hundreds of 3D printed planes already... come on editors, do your job!