AMS Spring 2023

University of Warwick Students Create UAV to Aid in Mountain Rescue Efforts


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There is a lot of conversation about the replacement of workers by automated robots and what that means for the future of the workforce from the perspective of both the employer and the employee. Those participating in these conversations might just have to set out a bowl of water and some kibble now and welcome a few St. Bernards. The working dog was originally bred as a rescue dog for the Great St. Bernard Pass and is still a part of contemporary rescue folklore.

Since their heyday in the rescue arena, there have been a number of advances in technology that have led to the development of mechanized rescue apparatus that means that if you have the bad luck of needing a rescue after an avalanche, the air moving on your face might not be the hot breath of a gargantuan panting canine, but rather the wind from the rotor blades of an unmanned aerial vehicle, aka drone. The latest advance in this technology comes out of the University of Warwick School of Engineering in Coventry, England where they have developed a UAV capable of delivering immediate assistance to those in distress before any larger rescue team arrives to complete the mission.

The drone was not the product of a massive R&D program by a company with extensive resources, but rather the result of the efforts of seven fourth-year students working as part of an industry and government supported program called Horizon (AM). This program has as its aim the advancement of additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry and these students knew just what they wanted to do as part of this effort.

With a large-format 3D printer at their disposal, it quickly became clear that this was the perfect technology for the fabrication of their machine, freeing them up to approach the more daunting task of the design itself. Rather than utilizing a traditional fuselage, which adds more weight than desired to the UAV, they decided to create their own, as Ed Barlow, who served as the project’s design lead, described:

“They all use an airframe that you can go and buy from a shop. We needed our own custom airframe, made specifically for long-distance flight with a heavy payload. The fuselage is essentially dead weight. It doesn’t generate any lift on the aircraft. We went with a blended-wing body, or ‘flying wing,’ where the fuselage is built into the wing such that the fuselage, as well as the wings, generate lift.”

The creation of such a creature required a lot of complex geometry as the UAV doesn’t have a stabilizing tail, still needs to be able to glide, and has to be able to carry its batteries and radio equipment. Luckily, the team was able to harness the power of Autodesk Fusion 360, explaining:

“There’s a whole plethora of geometry that you have to modify, which was part of the advantage of using Autodesk Fusion 360, with the sort of simulation and shape optimization that you can get. We used lots of simulation; reiterated; and made sure to get the drag ratio, lift figures, and shape optimization correct so that it was all stable and lightweight.”

Even with all of the simulation and preparation, the first test model that was produced in foam was reduced to bits and pieces after a flight of 21.2 seconds. Undaunted, the team continued to design and redesign until they hit upon the idea of creating 3D printed reusable molds for the body parts and using those to cast the pieces in lightweight resin-infused carbon fiber. The fabrication of all of the molds necessary to build the drone took about a month of continuous 3D printing, but that doesn’t mean that they are done innovating.

The team continues to explore ways to create dual functioning components in order to maximize the payload that the UAV could deliver to a person in need of rescue, and to figure out how to customize that payload to any given situation. They are currently looking at customized software that would provide a plan for the payload for each emergency. Professor of Engineering Simon Leigh served as the faculty guide during this project explained how such a program would work:

“It would suggest the load out you would need an dhow to balance it to get the right center of gravity. So we cataloged the supplies we want to put in it and worked out where they might sit in the airframe.”

Currently the team is focused on the creation of a UAV for mountain rescues, but such a vehicle could be used in any situation in which the arrival of a human rescue team would take longer than it is wise to wait. In addition to the mechanics of such a device, there are also laws and regulations in many areas governing UAVs that have to be navigated before they can be deployed. The way for such small UAVs (SUAVs) has been paved by Amazon as it has forged ahead with the technology as part of its delivery fleet.

All joking about St. Bernard unemployment aside, it is undeniably a good thing that these dogs be largely replaced with mechanized vehicles such as this one for the initial phases of search and rescue. After all, they can only do so much and during these dangerous maneuvers their lives are at risk too. The severe winters of 1816 – 1818, for example, caused a record number of avalanches, resulting in the death of many of the dogs. Thus, unwittingly, the team that developed this UAV and those that will follow are saving the lives of not only people in desperate need but also the dogs that would have unquestioningly risked theirs to save them.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at

[Images courtesy of University of Warwick]


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