BOFFINS at BAE Systems believe aircraft will be able to produce their own unmanned drones using in-flight 3D printers by 2040.
The technology is one of four futuristic schemes which scientists and engineers at the firm’s research and development team think could radically change the industry.
BAE, which has sites in Samlesbury and Warton, has taken the unusual step of releasing details of the ‘drawing board’ technologies, which would normally be kept well under wraps.
And although the aerospace giant was keen to stress that the concepts, which look straight out of blockbuster movies, might not necessarily see the light of day, it has also created a series of animated films showing how they might work.
Other ideas include The Transformer, a plane capable of splitting into three smaller jets, The Survivor, which repairs damaged material almost instantly, and directed energy systems (DES) capable of allowing jets to destroy missiles in mid-air.
The firm spent £117million on its research and development department last year, working alongside leading academics and government officials in a process it calls ‘future-gazing’.
Nick Colosimo, a futurist and engineering manager within the research team, describes the tools of the future.
JETS ‘SPLIT’ AND REASSEMBLE AS ONE
The Transformer is described as ‘a flexible aircraft system that combines smaller jets for more efficient travel’.
Just like in the film, it involves a machine, in this case a jet, which can split apart to quickly adapt to any scenario.
Nick said: “If you need to be in more than one place at the same time within an operation, you could send three seperate jets out, but that might not be the most affordable solution.
“If you have one jet that can divide into three, it could be more economical.”
For longer journeys, smaller sub-aircraft can be combined together during travel, to increase the range of the jet and save fuel through reducing drag.
Once they have reached their objective however, the craft can then split off and adapt to any given situation.
This could mean going on the offensive if threatened, or performing functional tasks such as surveillance or the dropping of supplies.
Nick said: “In the future is should be possible to join up three aircraft. We have looked at a number of technologies to enable that, including one which performed in a similar way to the toes of a gecko.“The aim is that it would stick strongly and then when we provide a signal it would unstick.”
On-board 3D printing
Unmanned aerial vehichles (UAVs) are created by super high-tech, on-board 3D printers, via a process known as additive layer manufacturing and robotic assembly techniques.
The 3D printers respond to data fed to them by a remote control room where a human commander decides what should be produced.
Nick said: “We are already seeing people make products using 3D printers. Southampton University has printed similar UAVs and have even flown that vehicle. We have also seen engineers use them to print metals, so it is possible.”
After use, the UAVs could render themselves useless through dissolving circuit boards or they might safely land in a recoverable position if they were to be re-used.
BAE describes this as ‘the ultimate adaptable taskforce’, with a lead aircraft able to enter any ‘unknown scenario’ and quickly manufacture the tools for the task.
Nick said: “In future it means any uncertainty about what to send out in any situation won’t matter. At the moment, you either send everything you’ve got, which isn’t afforable, or you take a guess, but that’s a risk.”
Speed of light weapons
These futuristic attachments would be capable of firing a concentrated beam of energy at the speed of light.
They are used to protect ground troops from incoming projectiles such as missiles or mortars, but in future BAE believe they could be used to destroy targets mid-air with ‘incredible accuracy’.
Nick said: “If we use DES as opposed to more conventional approaches, what we get with the laser beams is precision and accuracy.
“What we have shown [in the video] is an attack using a missile and in principle, in the time scales we are talking about, it should be possible to detect and intercept the missiles with a great deal of precision.
“If we can do that we can eliminate the risk to our forces and civilians. It is really made possible by a series of advances in scaled electronics, the same as those found in a mobile phone or a CD player.”
The team has looked at technology trends to predict what will be realistically possible in the future to be used in hi-tech warfare.
Nick added: “If it can be built small enough by 2040, we could see the same systems in aircraft.”
This technology allows jets to quickly heal themselves from damage sustained in flight.
Nick compared it to the human body and how it recovers from a cut to the skin.
The idea is similar to the self-healing cyborg from the Terminator movies.
He said: “The analogy here would be how we, or any other vertebrate, deals with a cut. We have blood and clotting agents.
“In this case, if the pipes and tubes are broken then fluid would ooze out.”
A lightweight adhesive fluid stored inside a pattern of tiny carbon tubes would be released whenever a jet is damaged.
The fluid would quickly ‘set’ mid-flight and heal any damage, creating a highly survivable jet capable of entering even the most dangerous of scenarios to complete vital missions.
Nick said the priority in developing technology like this was how to mass-produce it without compromising on safety.
He said: “We are usually quite conservative in the aerospace industry, and rightly so. This will take time and patience which is why we are looking towards the 2040s as realistic date.”