Royal Navy ship HMS Mersey has launched something unusual from her gun deck off England’s southern coast - a cheap drone made using a 3D printer.
The 1.5m wingspan, propeller-driven drone, known as 'Sulsa', was printed on shore and then assembled on the ship. The test was meant to demonstrate how more-or-less disposable drones that could, in a pinch, be printed onboard might cut costs and let a crew adapt quickly to a new mission - for example after a natural disaster.
A camera onboard the printed drone captured its launch from a catapult on HMS Mersey’s gun deck.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers explained that:
"Within five years, ships could be equipped with multi-material 3D printers able to produce entire unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), tailored to specific missions."
Ship-launched drones already exist but are typically much larger and cost millions, says Jim Scanlan, a professor at Southampton who works on the Sulsa project.
Scanlan singles out Boeing’s ScanEagle surveillance drone as an example. “Whoever is operating it is always petrified they might lose one,” he says. “If its single engine coughs, it goes for a swim.”
Click below to watch the launch and recovery of the Royal Navy's ScanEagle surveillance UAV:
The Sulsa can be printed for just a few thousand pounds, says Scanlan. He concedes that it can fly for only 40 minutes. But that could be enough for missions such as responding to reports of piracy, where being able to easily check out a vessel from a distance of 10 miles or so is valuable. “If they shoot at it, who cares? You send another one up,” says Scanlan.
Kevin Franks, deputy maritime account manager at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, said the MoD has a number of “lines of interest” in 3D printing. He said: “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.”
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