As the Royal Navy seeks to replace its Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), armadainternational.com talks to experts from the University of Southampton, about 3D (Three Dimensional) printed UAVs, and what they can bring to military operations.

In the second quarter of 2016, Southampton University, based on the south coast of England, successfully completed flight trials of its Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA); a battery-powered UAV. The flight trials were performed from HMS Protector, the Royal Navy’s (RN) ice patrol ship which helps to safeguard the UK’s sovereignty of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

The SULSA’s key characteristic is that it is composed of five structural/aerodynamic components produced using a 3D printer. Andy Keane, professor of computational engineering, and Jim Scanlan, professor of design, both based at the University of Southampton’s engineering and environment department, commented that one of the attractions of the SULSA concept is that: “There is no need for specific tools to assemble the SULSA, as the components snap into place together.”

According to Prof. Keane, 3D printed UAVs could be a real asset for militaries in the coming years. 3D printing technology is now capable of producing small batches of these UAVs at affordable prices, resulting in aircraft such as the SULSA which can cost as little as $5000, excluding their payload: “If the UAVs cost less, the military will then be able to deploy them everywhere more easily to gather information, without having to worry about potentially losing very expensive material,” Prof. Keane continued.

Due to financial constraints, the RN currently has no plans to work with the SULSA team to continue developing the UAV. Prof. Keane indicated that his team was therefore waiting for someone, potentially a coastguard or a company which could benefit from such technology, to invest in further research and development.