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3D printing takes off with unmanned aircraft

3D printing has taken off in a big way with the development of a fully-functional model aircraft.

A team form Southampton University led by Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan designed the flying machine, which has a 1.5 metere wingspan, as part of a project which could revolutionise the production of unmanned aircraft commonly known as drones or UAVs, according to a New Scientist report.

The team says that new UAVs will soon be able to go from drawing baord to production in a matter of days and will be fine tuned for specific applications whether it be crop spraying, surveillance or infrared photography.

3D printing has been around for nearly 20 years and uses lasers to slice up beds of stainless steel, plastic or titanium powder into solid, three dimensional objects.

Recent innovations mean that 3D printing will soon move out of the lab where it is used to make engineering prototypes and into the mainstream.

The University team says the technology could have huge implications for the aircraft design indutstry: "With 3D printing we can go back to pure forms and explore the mathematics of airflow without being forced to put in straight lines to keep costs down," says Keane.

The aircraft, which cost £5000 and was designed in two days, and took five to print, also has an autopilot system based on a chip designed by British outfit ARM.