Airbus produces mini pilotless aircraft using 3D printing

Using 3D printing, Airbus (Toulouse, France) has manufactured a small-sized pilotless aircraft called THOR (Testing High-tech Objectives in Reality) as a testbed for futuristic aircraft technologies. The aircraft features 3D-printed structural parts, advanced aerodynamics, and artificial intelligence.

The initial THOR version weighs approximately 21 kg and can fit in a 4 × 4m square. It is powered by two 1.5kW electrically driven propellers, and 90% of its structural components were 3D-printed from plastic polyamide powder.

Detlev Konigorski, Gunnar Haase, and Andreas Poppe with individual parts produced by 3D printing for the 4m-long THOR project aircraft
(L-R) Detlev Konigorski, Gunnar Haase, and Andreas Poppe with individual parts produced by 3D printing for the 4m-long THOR project aircraft.

A major advantage for THOR is the short lead time of 3D printing, which significantly reduced development time for producing the technology demonstrator compared to traditional manufacturing methods. Using an existing design concept, it took approximately seven weeks to print the THOR aircraft's 60 structural segments, followed by approximately one week for assembly and three days to fine-tune the electrical systems before it was flight-ready.  

THOR's initial flight occurred in November 2015, and the mini aircraft is resuming testing following its display at the recent Airbus Innovation Days exhibition and the ILA Berlin Air Show (held June 1-4, 2016, in Berlin, Germany).

Follow-on THOR versions currently are being assembled at the new Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL; Hamburg, Germany), in which Airbus is a major partner and shareholder. These aircraft will feature a modular design, allowing for greater flexibility in airframe and structural testing. For example, the second THOR version will accommodate interchangeable wings, including concepts for a hexagonal wing with support structure derived from a honeycomb design; a metallic aluminium wing; and a flexible wing made from carbon fiber-reinforced plastics.

THOR, a 3D-printed flying model, took off for its maiden flight in Stade, Germany, on November 21, 2015.

Once wing testing is complete, the THOR project will focus on artificial intelligence in collaboration with the Airbus Defence and Space business unit of the Airbus Group parent company. The idea is for a THOR aircraft to land completely on its own, identifying obstacles on the runway and determining whether it is safe to touch down without support from any ground infrastructure.

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