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3D printing trials of unmanned aircraft at the University of Sheffield broaden the possibilities for this emergent technology

  • Engineers at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield work on prototype of a 3D-printed unmanned aerial vehicle.
  • Low production costs might lead to the printing of 3D unmanned aircraft that could be disposable and sent on one-way flights for delivery, search or reconnaissance purposes.

Engineers at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield have successfully printed a 1.5m-wide prototype unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for a research project looking at 3D printing of complex designs.

The engineers said the polymer craft could form the basis of cheap and potentially disposable UAVs that could be built and deployed in remote situations potentially within as little as 24 hours.

Earlier versions required significant amounts of support material around component parts to prevent the airframe structures from deforming during the build process. Using support material adds a direct material cost, and significantly increases build time, in some cases by an order of magnitude. This is a result of the machine having to change between build and support structure heads after each printed layer.

Unmanned aerial vehicleNew 3D printing techniques, such as the fused deposition modelling (FDM) used to make the UAV at Sheffield, could soon be used in the creation of products without the need for complex and expensive tooling and the time required in traditional manufacturing.

The UAV has already completed a test flight as a glider. Researchers are developing an electric ducted fan propulsion system that will be incorporated into the airframe’s central spine. They plan to develop the craft for guidance by GPS or camera technology, controlled by an operator wearing first person-view goggles.

Dr Garth Nicholson who led the project said: “Following successful flight testing, we are working to incorporate blended winglets and twin ducted fan propulsion. We are also investigating full on-board data logging of flight parameters, autonomous operation by GPS, and control by surface morphing technology. Concepts for novel ducted fan designs are also being investigated”.

The Sheffield UAV comprises nine parts that can be snapped together.

It weighs less than 2kg and is made from thermoplastic. The engineers are currently evaluating the potential of nylon as a printing material that would make the UAV 60 per cent stronger with no increase in weight.

Unmanned aerial vehicle

Additional information

The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC)

The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) with Boeing is a world-class centre for advanced machining and materials research for aerospace and other high-value manufacturing sectors. It is a partnership between industry and academia, which has become a model for research centres worldwide.

The AMRC with Boeing identifies, researches and resolves advanced manufacturing problems, with a focus on developing new technologies and processes for machining high-performance metal alloys used in aerospace and other industries.

Researchers work with individual companies on specific projects, and collaborate on generic projects for the benefit of all members. Over 70 companies have signed up as members of the AMRC with Boeing.

The AMRC with Boeing is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, a consortium of seven manufacturing and process research centres backed by the Technology Strategy Board.

The AMRC is supported by the European Regional Development Fund.

For more information, see www.amrc.co.uk

Contact

For further information please contact:

Amy Pullan
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9859
a.l.pullan@sheffield.ac.uk