A team of engineers from the University of Southampton have successfully launched an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the airframe of which was constructed by the revolutionary process of 3D printing, from the bow of River-class OPV HMS Mersey P283. The staff from the university aimed to demonstrate the potential use of lightweight drones at sea by flying their Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA) a drone which weighs just 3kg and has a wing-span of 1.5 metres off the vessel. After being launched from the Royal Navy patrol vessel on station off the Dorset coast the small drone flew totally autonomously on a pre-programmed route before landing on Chesil Beach.
The exercise was led by the team from the University of Southampton under the name Project Triangle which among other things looks at applications for 3D printing in aviation and in 2011 they tested the world’s first entirely “printed” aircraft. 3D printers utilise laser sintered nylon which is then fused into solid structures by a laser beam. Theoretically the process can make any shaped object such as a fuselage, wings and components for a small UAV provided that the material and the diagram for construction are in place in the printer.
Officials from the Royal Navy remarked that they were interested in conceptual applications of unmanned and highly automated systems and that tests such as this go a long way to fully exploring that area. However from a military stand point the process of 3D printing has significant benefits particularly in the area of logistics. If a warship was able to manufacture temporary spares or replacement equipment then it would be less reliant on support ships and increase its time in operational theatres. One can only imagine how much easier the 1982 Falklands campaign would have been with this kind of technology when the Royal Navy were literally operating thousands of miles from the nearest port. Admittedly the technology is still in its infancy but no doubt military planners and think-tanks are already exploring the possibilities.