This summer, on July 9th, in Wiltshire Downs in southern England was done overall twenty short test flight of a small white UAV suited for unmanned aerial transport. Moreover, the first fourteen flyovers was remotely controlled by a pilot from the ground, but the last six was completely autonomous, based on autopilot program run from a computer. Although the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles flying in low altitudes of the United kingdom airspace are currently not so uncommon, it´s actually the way of production of this very drone what it makes so special. In fact, most of its key parts, even the fuselage and fuel tank, are made from light nylon by 3D printing. That´s undoubtedly a very promising step in UAS industry, for it makes all the production process more easier and cheaper. Thereby, in this way it could be in some time accesible even for not so hi-tech specialized companies which can anyway use the 3D printers for plenty of utilization.
Building of drones made from 3D printed parts is actually a specialization of research team from the University of Southampton, led by Jim Scanlan. They first great succes came three years ago, when they constructed an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle entirely from parts made by 3D printing or additive manufacturing. Moreover, they currently have a £3m grant support from the British government in order to design and prove that drones for common use can be built and tested in time of less than two weeks. With their know-how the are really pretty successfull. However, prof. Scanlan is actually much more ambitious. He reportedly believes that the aircraft, recently tested in Wiltshire Downs, can become a prototype of a new cheap unmanned cargo transport airborn class.
It would be a large technology breakthrough, if there are large unmanned cargo planes made by 3D printers, plying the skies autonomously and using inexpensive, off-the-shelf communications technologies. In order to show what is this technology capable of, Scanland has started the HIATUS program, using Highlands and Islands as a test area for UAV transportation. Moreover, this idea is also an effort to improve a poor transport connection in the area of Europe islands. One of the advantages of such autonomous ferry is the fact that drones definitely don´t mind flying in fog and bad weather conditions. I´m pretty curious if the team will be successfull with this project and make this to happen. Using the drones for autonomous aerial cargo transport is a great dream, probably best known from Amazon´s intentions. There´s undoubtedly still a lot of work to be done, but with a good funding and strong willingness it´s probably just a matter of time.