The print-a-drone aircraft carriers of the future?
HMS Mersey is not an impressive warship. The 261-foot River-class OPV is slow, armed with just three guns all under 20mm in caliber, and is tasked primarily with coast guard style missions. However, last week she pulled off something that could revolutionize how drones are used at sea in the next generation.
You see she launched a UAV that was made from 3D printed parts.
The 7-pound Sulsa with its 5-foot wingspan can make 100 knots and was assembled on the ship with its body and wings made via 3D desktop printer and a prepackaged battery, control electronics, propeller, and motor.
The Sulsa can be printed for just a few thousand dollars, says Jim Scanlan, a professor at Southampton who works on the craft design. He concedes that it can fly for only 40 minutes. But that could be enough for missions such as responding to reports of piracy, where being able to easily check out a vessel from a distance of 10 miles or so is valuable. “If they shoot at it, who cares? You send another one up,” says Scanlan.
He envisages ships putting out to sea carrying printed parts to make up to 50 drones as well as a 3-D printer and the powder feedstock needed to print spares or bespoke vehicles for different missions, which might require different sensors. However, work remains to be done to prove that printing planes at sea makes sense. Printing the parts for a Sulsa takes hours, and existing printers would need to be modified so they could stay level at sea.