3D printers could be so advanced by 2040 they could create small unmanned aircraft, BAE Systems scientists and engineers at Warton claim.
These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) could then potentially be used as a group of wide-winged aircraft for protracted or enduring surveillance or as rotary-winged UAVs to rescue single civilians or soldiers from dangerous situations, they suggest.
The scientists, who have been working on futuristic aircraft technologies, have been looking at the idea that they could be created by super high-tech 3D printers carried on board manned aircraft, an additive layer and robotic assembly.
The UAVs could render themselves useless with the installation of dissolving circuit boards, or they might be able to land in a recoverable position if they are needed for further use.
BAE Systems believes this could create “the ultimate adaptable task force, with a lead aircraft able to enter any unknown scenario and quickly manufacture an effective tool set for any task”.
Nick Colosimo, a futurist and engineering manager at BAE Systems’ research and development team in Warton, said: “Of course, we don’t know exactly what sorts of aircraft technologies will be used in 2040 with any certainty, but it’s great to be able to show the public some concepts that might be possible through projecting where today’s technology could get to.
“BAE Systems has a rich heritage in research and development, and our team builds on literally decades of previous R&D work by thousands of scientists and engineers.”
BAE Systems has unveiled the UAV as one of four futuristic technologies they believe could be incorporated in military and civil aircraft in 2040 or even earlier.
Other possibilities include aircraft parts that can heal themselves in minutes – called The Survivor – and a new type of long-range aircraft which divides into a number of smaller aircraft when it reaches its destination, dubbed The Transformer.
There is also the possibility of a directed energy weapon that could engage missiles at the speed of light, destroy them and protect the people below.
All four technologies are still at the drawing-board stage but BAE Systems, which has invested £117m across all of its research and development work in 2013, is confident about the prospects of them becoming a reality.
It describes The Transformer as “a flexible aircraft system that combines smaller jets for more efficient travel, before having them split apart to quickly adapt to any scenario”.
By combining the jets on a longer journey, there could be potential gains to be made in terms of increased range and fuel savings by cutting the amount of drag, scientists claim.
Once they have reached their destination, the craft can then be split off and used for a range of activities. These could include going on the offensive if threatened, being used for surveillance or dropping off supplies.
The Survivor is a lightweight adhesive fluid built inside the aircraft, which allows jets to quickly ‘heal’ themselves from damage sustained in flight. It is released to quickly ‘set’ in mid-flight and repair any damage.
This advanced use of materials would create a survivable jet, capable of entering even the most dangerous of scenarios on vital missions, according to a BAE Systems spokesman.
BAE Systems sees the directed energy systems (DES) as an attachment weapon for aircraft that is capable of firing a concentrated beam of energy at the speed of light.
Modern-day battlefields feature DES, which can be used to protect ground troops from incoming missiles or mortars.
In the future this capability could be taken in to the air as an attachment for aircraft, allowing fast-moving jets accurately to destroy targets mid-air, the experts claim.
The team works with the UK’s leading aviation thinkers, government and a range of companies to predict and explore how aircraft engineering might evolve.