Written By Jon Rosamond Via news.usni.org
LONDON — While U.S. Navy sailors have trialed the use of additive manufacturing (3D printing) technology to build a miniature quadcopter aboard USS Essex (LHD-2) and fly it around the hanger deck, it’s their British counterparts who were first to launch a 3D-printed fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle from a ship.
The offshore patrol vessel HMS Mersey used a specially-fitted catapult to fire the SULSA (Southampton University Laser-Sintered Aircraft) off the bow on July 21. Weighing 3kg and with a 1.5m wingspan, the drone flew for 500m before landing on a beach on England’s south coast.
For deployed naval forces, the key benefits of 3D printing are a shorter supply chain with reduced spares inventories (releasing space onboard ships for more valuable stores or equipment) and improved availability, according to Paul Jones, director of U.K.-based consulting firm Arke Ltd.
It could also significantly reduce the need for highly-trained fitters, he told USNI News, and allow the rapid production of custom-designed items for specific tasks that were not envisaged when the ship left port.
“3D printing is ideal for limited production runs, for instance if you want five [unmanned underwater vehicles] for a particular mission. It could take just two days to manufacture a plastic hull and insert the electronics”, said Jones, a production engineer whose company has provided cost estimating services for several Royal Navy and other U.K. Ministry of Defence projects.
“We looked at shipboard applications as exemplars, and the one we picked for the Royal Navy was the knob on a gas cooker. They break off. We took a photograph of the old one, with a bit of ingenuity you can produce the final finish and the clip to push it back on, and you’ve got a knob again. It’s all about maintaining availability.”