take off like a helicopter, fly like an airplane

the aerospace industry is using large format 3d printing to develop next generation VTOL aircraft

While you may not be hearing in the news about advances being made in aircraft design  (think flying cars), they are taking place and are being facilitated by the evolution that large format 3D printing services has enabled in the development of new ideas. Large format 3D printing technology has come to be largely characterized by its ability to lend itself to all types of experimentation possibilities without breaking the bank, which is good news for those who are interested in pushing the boundaries of science and engineering. And when it comes to flight it´s not hard to consider that all kinds of weird and unusual designs are being tried out when one just thinks back to those old black and white films of the first airplanes, like those that had 4 fixed wings, or more. With the dawning of commercial space travel there´s no telling how far we can go.

One area in which professionals are making the kind of strives that are bordering on science fiction is in one of the most interesting governmental bodies you’ve probably never heard of, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. This extremely well funded branch of the US military has launched the Vertical Takeoff and Landing Experimental Plane project, or VTOL X-Plane, to try to perfect aircraft for essential vertical takeoff and landing, on almost any flat surface that you can think of. It is meant to combine the steadfast speed of an airplane with the precise handling of a helicopter, that as such has proven itself to be a very useful innovation in rescue operations precisely because of their unique omnidirectional maneuverability, however, helicopters just can´t venture too far for missions because of their limiting top speed of about 160 knots. Not exactly ideal when you’re trying to reach the site of an emergency as fast as possible. It really is naturally interesting trying to combine the efficiency of a fixed-wing design and the uncanny mobility of a rotary based aircraft. 

The challenge in joining these two types of flying machines into a single design that makes sense has been to develop new designs that can be put to good use and as such won´t compromise necessary factors such as a considerably useful payload, efficient engineering and an overall range that will allow it to reach where it needs to be. Traditional construction methods have placed pretty hardline limiting constraints in respect to the level of complexity that a given design is able to realistically have, if only for the sake of keeping the cost of their manufacture down to an amount that´s worth investing thoroughly in, well into the all important phase of open field experimentation.

The goals are for a new hybrid design include featuring a sustained top speed that´s somewhere around 350 knots, or about 450 mph, that in order to be feasible, requires aerodynamic air flow pathways that keep drag down to an absolute minimum in order to raise cruise efficiency to a lift-to-drag ratio of at least double of the industry average of 5ish. Hover efficiency also needs to increase as the standard 60% in most helicopters won´t do because of the added weight, therefore it needs to increase to 75%. The weight of its useful load capacity also must increase to at the very least 40 percent of the aircraft´s projected gross weight of around 11,000 pounds so that necessary equipment may be carried without sacrificing mobile efficiency. As you can see it is the definition of a tall order.

To meet these goals DARPA partnered with Aurora Flight Sciences after holding a design competition that lasted a number of years.This new partner has had a considerable amount of experience with experimental aircraft; they made the very first 3D-printed, unmanned aerial vehicle using large format 3d printing services that´s jet-powered back in 2015 when they joined forces with large format 3d printing giant Stratasys and their patented production-grade ULTEM 9085 thermoplastic that has an impressive resistance ratio and light weight, and works swimmingly with their Fused Deposition Modeling system. This UAV that consists of 80 percent printed parts has a wingspan of nine feet and weighs a little more than 30 pounds. Aerospace Research Engineer at Aurora Flight Sciences claims that this resulting model is very telling in the experimental potential that large format 3d printing services have to offer entire industries as he asserts that with their UAV prototype their ¨…primary goal… was to show the aerospace industry just how quickly you can go from designing to building to flying a large format 3D-printed jet-powered aircraft.¨

Together, in collaboration with Rolls-Royce and Honeywell, they have accrued a lot of knowledge through persistent trial and error that they relied on to construct, with tons of large format 3D printing services, all kinds of design ideas and as a result have been able to make all kinds of progress that eventually led to the LightningStrike Aircraft. It is characterized by it´s wing and canard tail system that is made largely from printed out thermoplastics. The fruit of their labors is quite impressive as this first aircraft features distributed hybrid-electric propulsion ducted fans, tilt wing and canard for vertical propulsion that when put together offer incredible hover efficiency, and high-speed forward flight that do wonders for its fuel efficiency. The key to these characteristics is the complex structural elements that could have only been printed on a large scale 3d printer. To give you an idea of how efficient it is, the scale plane that´s 20% of the full size weighs only 325 pounds. It was tested via remote control which you can watch yourself on Youtube and passed with such flying colors that the real deal is scheduled for testing this year.

Much in the same way that the microwave was originally developed by the military as a weapon, but eventually landed a home in domestic applications, the flying car may be closer than we have been inclined to think thanks to the efforts that are being made to experiment in departments like DARPA that establishes relationships with top companies that are keen to find solutions for more versatile flight. However, without the backing of large format 3D printing service companies in particular they would be much more hard pressed to not only build different prototypal designs, but to test them out and record how they perform out on the field as well.

When we watch movies that take place in a sci-fi future, it seems like we are so far away from living in these fantastical realms with awe-inspiring technology just strewn all over the place. The truth of the matter is that the same could have been said by people 200 years ago about their notions of speedy animal-less vehicles and aircraft. All that these dreams really need is the initiative and ceaseless development of complex tools. 

Although it may require a considerable amount of resources to get an idea going, or literally off the ground in this case, there are many people who have the drive and vision to see things through. In this big, wide world there are all kinds of people that are willing to put forth the effort to see just what can come of their ideas. It´s important to recognize when these people come up with something worthwhile so that they may have as much support as possible because all too commonly inventions and innovations are left in the back-burner to be forgotten until someone else comes along and believes. The smart thing is to find out what large format 3D printing services have got, otherwise else no one will know what they´ve been missing until it´s too late.

Keep reading: more articles about 3D scanning

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