EADS and university students have shown that they can print an unmanned aircraft.
They input the design onto a computer, which triggered a laser to melt powder into layer after layer of solid material until a shape took form. And that form was a drone. EADS recently unveiled the small, plastic unmanned aircraft at the Farnborough Airshow in England.
The 3-D printing process, also known as additive layer manufacturing, is based on the principles of rapid prototyping and creates products out of fine powder metal (such as titanium, stainless steel and aluminum), nylon or carbon-reinforced plastics. Parts produced through 3-D printing can be up to 65 percent lighter but just as strong as those created with traditional machinery.
“Using [additive layer manufacturing] technology in the production of such a small drone opens new possibilities for aerodynamic optimizations such as wing twist, which would otherwise be difficult and expensive to realize for an aircraft of this scale,” EADS officials said in a release.
By using the 3-D printing method, EADS could make several sets of wings for different missions at a reasonable price, officials said.
The plastic prototype has a wingspan of 5 feet but is for exhibition purposes only and can’t fly. EADS intends to create a flyable metallic version that can be controlled via wireless video communication over a short distance for use in surveillance, disaster control and search-and-rescue operations. It will be powered by batteries or could use a future lightweight hydrogen fuel cell, which could increase its endurance from two to six hours, officials said.