3-D printed airplane takes test flight
Washington: University of Virginia engineering students have built an unmanned aerial vehicle, using 3-D printing technology, and flown successfully.
When the students posted a YouTube video last spring of a plastic turbofan engine they had designed and built using 3-D printing technology, they didn’t expect it to lead to anything except some page views.
But executives at Mitre Corporation, a McLean-based defense contractor, saw the video and sent an announcement to the School of Engineering and Applied Science that they were looking for two summer interns to work on a new project involving 3-D 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.
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 got the job: to build over the summer an unmanned aerial vehicle, using 3-D printing technology. In other words, a plastic plane, to be designed, fabricated, built and test-flown between May and August.
The engineers work with insight from their adviser, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor David Sheffler, a U.Va. Engineering School alumnus and 20-year veteran of the aerospace industry.
It was a daunting project – producing a plane with a 6.5-foot wingspan, made from assembled “printed” parts. The students sometimes put in 80-hour workweeks, with many long nights in the lab.
“It was sort of a seat-of-the-pants thing at first – wham, bang. But we kept banging away and became more confident as we kept designing and printing out new parts,” Easter said.
Sheffler said he had confidence in them “the entire way.”
The way eventually led to assembly of the plane and four test flights in August and early September at Milton Airfield near Keswick. It achieved a cruising speed of 45 mph and is only the third 3-D printed plane known to have been built and flown.
During the first test, the plane’s nosepiece was damaged while the plane taxied around the field.
“We dogged it,” Easter said. “But we printed a new nose.”
That ability to make and modify new parts is the beauty of 3-D printing, said Sheffler, who works with students in the Engineering School’s Rapid Prototyping Lab.
Mitre Corp. representatives and Army officials observed the fourth flight of Easter and Turman’s plane.
They were impressed and asked the students to stay on through this academic year as part-time interns. Their task now is to build an improved plane – lighter, stronger, faster and more easily assembled. The project also is their fourth-year thesis.