Airbus tests 3D-printed mini aircraft

A small-sized pilotless aircraft made using 3D printing (additive layer manufacturing) processes has recently been showcasing Airbus’ pioneering and innovative spirit. Airbus is using this mini aircraft project – known as THOR (Testing High-tech Objectives in Reality) – as a testbed for futuristic aircraft technologies: from 3D-printed structural parts to advanced aerodynamics and even artificial intelligence.

This mini aircraft does not represent an actual airliner design Airbus is considering, rather it is a platform to enable low-risk and fast-track development of different technologies in real flying conditions,” explained Detlev Konigorski of Airbus’ Emerging Technologies & Concepts activity in Germany, who oversees the THOR project. “The first version was to test whether the slogan ‘Print me an airplane’ can be converted into reality.”

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. Follow-on THOR versions currently are being assembled at the new Center of Applied Aeronautical Research in Hamburg, Germany – known as the ZAL, in which Airbus is a major partner and shareholder. “If a THOR aircraft takes off, and after 30 feet makes a nose dive back the ground, our attitude is: ‘good, let’s sweep it off the runway and come up with a better idea,’” Konigorski said. “In a few weeks, we can print a new aircraft!”