Years ago, University of Southampton researchers, led by Jim Scanlan, a professor of aerospace design, scored a world first when they built and flew a UAV constructed entirely from parts made by additive manufacturing, or 3D printing.
That original UAV, four iterations ago, was smaller, with a 4-foot wingspan. Since then, Scanlan’s team – armed with a £3m UK government grant – has been successfully working to prove that drones can be designed, built and tested in the relatively time-warp speed of less than two weeks using additive manufacturing.
But now Scanlan has set his sights on an even larger target: "All cargo aircraft will soon be unmanned,” Scanlan says. More boldly, Scanlan also believes that large cargo planes –assembled from 3D-printed parts – can soon be flying the skies using inexpensive, off-the-shelf communications technologies, instead of relying on expensive, and yet-to-be developed, sense-and-avoid systems. To prove his point, Scanlan’s started a program called HIATUS, for Highlands and Islands Aerial Transport using Unmanned Systems, that he hopes will, within 18 months, use 3D-printed drones, each about half the size of a small Cessna and flying semi-autonomously, to ferry goods to remote islands in Europe that have poor transportation links and are often inaccessible because of fog and bad weather. “Our unmanned aircraft,” he insists, “is perfectly happy flying in fog.”
“Drones will soon be part of everyone’s lives,” says Amanda Stainer, commercial director of the biennial Farnborough International Airshow, which runs from July 14th to 20th. There are 78 companies displaying UAV technologies, a nearly four-fold increase from the 22 that took part in the 2012 show. “It’s pretty buzzing,” she says of drone systems. “People obviously see it as the future.” A 2012 report by US aviation consultants Teal Group estimated that, by 2022, annual spending on UAVs would jump from $6.6 billion to $11.4 billion, for a total of $89 billion over the decade.