UK drone manufacturer Marble Aerospace is considering the adoption of an innovative metallic 3D-printing process to produce the complete airframe of its MRB5 platform to drive performance enhancements.

Based in Chippenham in southwest England, Marble is the brainchild of chief executive Mathieu Johnsson, a former Airbus engineer.

MRB5-c-Marble Aerospace

Source: Marble Aerospace

MRB5 is capale of vertical take-off and landing operations

Specialising in maritime monitoring services – for example, fisheries protection – where the ability to survey as wide an area as possible for the lowest price is key, the firm has developed multiple iterations of its drone, currently building the fifth-generation MRB5.

A vertical take-off and landing, lift-and-cruise design, featuring four lift rotors and a single pusher propeller, the platform is “quite different to anything on the market”, says Johnsson, with speed prioritised over endurance.

The complete airframe is currently constructed from an extremely stiff, 3D-printed glass-filled resin. But while that offers certain advantages around weight and producibility, the material lacks impact-resistance.

In response, Marble is assessing the potential of switching to a 3D-printed metal design.

“Metal is more expensive but there are benefits to it. Our drone would benefit from a thermal and mechanical perspective,” says Johnsson.

Although stressing it is not an immediate priority, a change in material would yield a platform that is both more robust and better able to dissipate the heat generated by onboard systems.

MRB5box-c-Marble Aerospace

Source: Marble Aerospace

Company is contemplating switching to 3D-printed metallic airframe

That is necessary due to the increasing computing power of installed payloads, plus the requirement for a high-speed, low-drag configuration that has driven the use of “highly integrated components”, such as motors and controls, “within as small a fuselage as possible”, says Johnsson.

“Being able to extract the heat from their operation effectively is an advantage,” he says.

Featuring a twin-boom configuration, the MRB5 has a typical wingspan of around 1.5m (5ft) – although it can be altered to suit the mission – and can be broken down into sections small enough to be transported in regular airline hold luggage. Multiple integrated cameras are a typical sensor payload.

In the short term, however, the firm’s focus is on conducting operational deployments of the MRB5. Marble recently disclosed a contract award from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs under its Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment programme to enhance biodiversity observation capabilities in UK waters.

Marble will use a fleet of drones for the effort, which will be operated in beyond visual line of sight missions.

“By deploying large constellations of these drones, Marble aims to achieve a cost per square kilometre of operation that is several orders of magnitude lower than existing solutions,” it says.

Additionally, production will be scaled up. Having built 18 aircraft over a two-year period, it aims to turn out another six examples in the next four months.