First 3D printed plane could be the future of unmanned drones

A team of engineers at the University of Southampton in the U.K. have created what's being called the world's first 3D printed airplane. While 3D printing has been eyed to make airplane components (among other things), cranking out an entire, working craft is definitely something new — and something that could be promising in the growing world of unmanned aerial vehicles.

UAVs fill all manner of roles from science missions to surveillance and recon to performing air-to-ground military strikes. The Southampton team believes that by 3D-printing a UAV, we could soon skip the assembly line altogether, and make the craft far cheaper to crank out.

(Not to geek out here, but imagine an aircraft carrier that printed its drones on the fly as they were needed, which would also allow it to replenish its fleet without having to go back to port or have new UAVs fly out. Or, too, imagine something like a spacecraft that could print its own recon drones on another planet — say, Mars — and continue to do so as long as it has the materials available. We're a long way from any of that, but hey, a boy can dream.)

Their 3D-printed aircraft is called the "Sulsa" (for Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft), which runs on an electric motor and cost just over $8,000 to produce. It only has just shy of a five-foot wingspan, but UAVs aren't usually the size of full jets to begin with. The Sulsa's first flight lasted for 10 minutes, which isn't too shabby for a plane that was built layer by micrometers-thick layer out of plastic powder.

You can see a video of its maiden flight right here.

University of Southampton, via New Scientist, via Inhabitat

For the latest tech stories, follow us on Twitter at @dvice