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The University of Southampton

Exploring Earth's atmosphere using the world's first fully 'rapid prototyped' air vehicle

Published: 7 December 2011Origin: Engineering

Engineering scientists at the University of Southampton are flying the world's first fully rapid prototyped air vehicle this week, to help develop new technologies that probe the Earth's atmosphere using an unmanned platform.

The vehicle is part of the ASTRA (Atmospheric Science Through Robotic Aircraft) project, and it aims to demonstrate how a low-cost, bespoke high altitude platform could be developed and manufactured over a period of mere days and used to send a payload with atmospheric monitoring equipment into the upper atmosphere.

The entire structure of the balloon-borne pod - dubbed the ASTRA Atom -- has been printed, and the on-board data logging equipment has been built using Microsoft's rapid electronic prototyping toolkit .NET Gadgeteer ( The Atom was printed on the University's 3Dprinter, which fabricates plastic objects, building up the item layer by layer. 

The aircraft is protected by two foam ‘orbits', manufactured using a computer-controlled hot wire cutter at the University's Engineering Design and Manufacturing Centre, which are designed to break on landing and absorb the energy of the impact. 

Dr András Sóbester, University of Southampton Lecturer and a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow, says: "The rapid prototyping of bespoke platforms like the ASTRA Atom enables scientists to deliver a variety of instruments far into the stratosphere after a very short design and manufacture cycle. This may be required for testing purposes, as part of an iterative development process or there may be a sudden need to make observations of phenomena such as volcano eruptions or nuclear fallout. In such cases, rapid prototyping translates into fast response and timely measurements that could not be obtained in other ways." 

Dr Steven Johnston, from the University of Southampton's Microsoft Institute of High Performance Computing, adds: "The challenges of developing such systems are varied as the aircraft has to be able to operate in the harsh, low pressure, low density environment of the upper stratosphere, as well as in the dense and turbulent lower troposphere. Additionally, weight and power requirements of all on-board systems have to be minimised. The need to keep weight and cost to a minimum, while providing bespoke architectures demands novel manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing, too. 

"Using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, developing such platforms would normally take months. Furthermore, because no tooling is required for manufacture, radical changes to the shape and scale of the ‘pod' can be made with no extra cost."

The ASTRA aircraft will have its maiden flight today (Wednesday 07 December) at Microsoft Research's 8th annual Think Computer Science event at The Imperial War Museum in Duxford. The event is a unique opportunity for year 8 and 9 students to gain an insight into the work of scientists and view a selection of the latest technologies in development through presentations and interactive demos.

Notes for editors

1. ASTRA investigates new technologies for making low cost observations of the physical parameters of the atmosphere. It develops and tests platforms capable of delivering scientific instruments to altitudes ranging from the planetary boundary layer (hundreds of meters) to the upper stratosphere (up to 50km):


2. The University of Southampton has been at the forefront of UAV development since the early 1990s, when work began on the Autosub programme at its waterfront campus at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. A battery powered submarine travelled under sea ice in more than 300 voyages to map the North Sea, and assess herring stocks. 

3. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship across a wide range of subjects in engineering, science, social sciences, health and humanities.   

With over 23,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover well in excess of £435 million, the University of Southampton is acknowledged as one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine. We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning. 

The University is also home to a number of world-leading research centres including the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Web Science Research Initiative, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute and is a partner of the National Oceanography Centre at the Southampton waterfront campus.


For further information contact: 

Glenn Harris, Media Relations, University of Southampton, Tel: 023 8059 3212, email:


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