World’s first 3D printed space plane


The first-ever 3D-printed, rocket-powered space-plane has been designed by Postgraduate aeronautical design students from the University of Southampton. The Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator (LOHAN) mission is an audacious plan to launch Vulture 2, a 3D printed rocket-powered space plane, into the stratosphere at three times the cruising altitude of a transatlantic jet. The Vulture 2 will rise to an estimated launch altitude of 20,000 metres under a carbon fibre launch structure lifted by a helium-filled meteorological balloon. Once the rocket motor fires – courtesy of a custom-built electronic igniter board – the aircraft will soar to a heady 25,000 metres, after which the Vulture 2 will glide back to earth under autopilot control.

The British team – headed up by technology magazine The Register’s Special Projects Bureau – will launch what is arguably the world’s most advanced amateur UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a stratospheric drone) at the home of Virgin Galactic – Spaceport America, New Mexico, in the coming months. The Vulture 2 was designed by post-graduate aeronautical design students Amrith Surendra, Chris Dodd and David Cooper, and produced with industrial-scale 3D printing equipment. The avionics are an advanced mix of 3D robotics autopilot and British-built Raspberry Pi. Between them, they will use GPS, airspeed and other telemetry to navigate the Vulture 2 back to a predetermined landing site. Cameras will record the entire flight from ascent, through to blast-off, and on to landing.

Surendra, one of the students who designed Vulture 2, says, ”Being involved in the design of Vulture 2 has been an amazing learning experience. It gave us the opportunity to apply our knowledge to explore new ideas and come up with a truly revolutionary design. Working on this project has allowed me to appreciate level of precision and ingenuity that is required to create a system of this nature, and has undoubtedly peaked my interest in pursuing a career in the aerospace industry after my doctoral studies.” Lester Haines, head of The Register’s Special Projects Bureau and holder of the Guinness World Record for the highest launch of a paper aeroplane, says, ”Without doubt, this is the most complicated amateur high-altitude mission ever undertaken. We’ve spent four years, thousands of hours and quite a bit of cash overcoming numerous technical challenges, and we’re delighted that EXASOL has come on board for the grand finale. We don’t know quite what will happen when the big day arrives, but one thing’s for sure – it’s going to be quite a show.” Aaron Auld, CEO of database management software company EXASOL, the lead sponsors of the project, says, ”When we heard about The Register’s plan to launch the Vulture 2, we thought it was only fitting that the world’s fastest in-memory analytic database, EXASolution, should support this fascinating venture. EXASOL strongly believes in innovation, so this spoke to our core philosophy. We are all about pushing boundaries and just as EXASolution pushes speed and performance benchmarks to become the world’s best, so does The Vulture 2.”