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Student engineers design, build and fly a ‘printed’ aircraft

18 October 2012

A group of engineering students spent the summer building a 3D printed 6.5ft wingspan UAV - believed to be only the third 3D printed aircraft to have been built and flown.

Mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and project adviser David Sheffler, left, with the 3D printed aircraft creators, Steven Easter, centre, and Jonathan Turman

When University of Virginia engineering students posted a YouTube video last spring of a plastic turbofan engine they had designed and built using 3D printing, they didn’t expect it to lead to anything except some page views.

But executives at The MITRE Corporation, a McLean-based federally funded research and development centre with an office in Charlottesville, saw the video and sent an announcement to the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science that they were looking for two summer interns to work on a new project involving 3D printing. They just didn’t say what the project was. Only one student responded to the job announcement: Steven Easter, then a third-year mechanical engineering major.

“I was curious about what they had to offer, but I didn’t call them until the day of the application deadline,” Easter said.

He got a last-minute interview and brought with him his brother and lab partner, Jonathan Turman, also a third-year mechanical engineering major.

They were subsequently appointed to build, over the summer months, an unmanned aerial vehicle using 3D printing technology, to be designed, fabricated, built and test-flown between May and August. A real-world engineering challenge, and part of a Department of the Army project to study the feasibility of using such aircraft.

Producing an aircraft with a 6.5ft wingspan, made from assembled 'printed' parts proved a daunting task, and the students sometimes put in 80-hour weeks, with many long nights in the lab.

Finally assembled, the aircraft underwent four test flights in August and early September, achieving a cruising speed of 45 mph.

It is believed to be only the third 3D printed aircraft known to have been built and flown.


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