drupal statistics module

Machines Like Us

3-D printed airplane takes flight

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The unmanned aerial vehicle, "dressed" in U.Va.'s colors. The plane was built entirely from parts from a 3-D printer. Credit: University of Virginia

When University of Virginia engineering 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 The MITRE Corporation, a McLean-based federally funded research and development center with an office in Charlottesville, 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.

“I was curious about what they had to offer, but I didn’t call them until the day of the application deadline,” Easter said.

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. A real-world engineering challenge, and part of a Department of the Army project to study the feasibility of using such planes.

Three-dimensional printing is, as the name implies, the production or “printing” of actual objects, such as parts for a small airplane, by using a machine that traces out layers of melted plastic in specific shapes until it builds up a piece exactly according to the size and dimensions specified in a computer-aided drawing produced by an engineer.

In this case, the engineers were Easter and Turman, working 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.