European airliner maker Airbus has designed, built and flown an entirely 3D printed unmanned air vehicle (UAV) which it has designated Thor. This was reported by Airbus head of emerging technologies & concepts Peter Sander at the Innovation Days 2016 media conference on Monday.
Thor is an acronym for Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality.
"Thor is a test platform for high risk investigations," he told Engineering News Online. These will be aerodynamic investigations. "We [will] prove the concept – [establish] if it works, or not."
Different aerodynamic concepts can be tested using a 3D printed UAV which can be designed and built in a matter of weeks (instead of months, using conventional processes) and at a much lower cost than a conventionally made UAV. A 3D printed aircraft can also be more rapidly and easily optimised than a conventionally built one.
The Thor aircraft is about 4 m in length and with a wingspan that is also some 4 m. It has a mass of 25 kg. "You can [3D] print this kind of aircraft in four weeks," he stated in his presentation. "It has low lead times for fast track developments." It was test flown in November and the company plans 18 missions for the Thor UAV this year.
Thor is part of Airbus's drive to develop 3D printing, more formally known as additive layer manufacturing (ALM), as a tool to improve future production processes and product support services. This initiative is being developed across the Airbus group, including Airbus Defence & Space and Airbus Helicopters.
The company is using 3D printing to produce wing test sections for wind tunnel tests, using polyamide-alumide materials. This has reduced lead-time by 90% and cost by 75%. "Print it in a week, and try a new one next week!"
Airbus is also pursuing the concept of bionic design. That is, using designs based on structures found in nature. One such example is the inspiration provided by giant water lily leaves, which can bear surprisingly heavy weights.
The first bionic-design printed titanium powder part, a cabin bracket for the A350 wide-body airliner, was first flown in June 2014. The first spare part printed for an Airbus aircraft has been in service with Air Transnat since February 2014. ALM allows spare parts to be produced locally. Now, Airbus has also developed a bionic-design cabin partition, 3D printed from aluminum powder, which is 50% lighter than conventional cabin partitions.
Airbus is cooperating with companies and institutions in South Africa in the development of 3D printing. Keith Campbell is attending the Airbus Innovation Days 2016 as a guest of the company