This Tiny 3D-Printed Drone Sniffs Out Ice For the Royal Navy

Image: University of Southampton
Image: University of Southampton

As Kate Winslet and Leo can attest, piloting ships in icy waters can be hazardous. So for an Antarctic naval patrol vessel, it makes sense to get some extra help.


For HMS Protector, that help comes in the form of a SULSA UAV, a tiny, lightweight UAV that can be launched from a deck and cruise at 60mph. It feeds back imagery from an onboard camerea, and then lands in the water, where it can be fished out by hand. The real-time aerial imagery is incredibly useful for Protector, as it tries to navigate Antarctic ice.

The entire thing is 3-D printed from a few components, and easily snapped together by hand. Although 3-D printing isn’t going to kill conventional manufacturing any time soon, applications like this demonstrate its versatility—not every ship wants to carry a stock of drones, but having a 3-D printer and a supply of nylon is much easier and more versatile.

Test footage from a previous launch

Tiny ship-launched drones are also a useful tool for navies worldwide. Ships combating piracy are already using them extensively, as it’s a much cheaper way of checking out distant ships than spooling up a helicopter.

[University of Southampton]

Contributing Editor


Stephan Zielinski

Yeah! All they’d have to carry is a laser-sintering machine the size of a dining table, a stock of powdered nylon, “one avionics tray, one motor/propeller, two batteries, four servos with their links, a receiver and an autopilot/aerial” per drone, and have 96 hours warning before they needed it. MUCH more convenient than building the thing on land and sticking it into a hold until it’s needed!

3D printing is a class of machining technologies. Jut because it has some advantages for on-site manufacture doesn’t mean that’s always how it’s deployed.