You know how eight-year-olds just dream up crazy ideas for transforming, self-healing, laser-firing robotic war drones? Most of those kids grow up and realize that none of those things are possible. Then, there are the futurists at BAE Systems, who think that the British defense contractor will be capable of building those exact sorts of aircraft by 2040.
In the future, the company’s scientists and engineers suggest that 3D printing will be so advanced that it will be possible to additively manufacture small drones on the fly, so to speak. Though advanced 3D printing and robotic assembly, BAE researchers hope to fabricate the planes while in flight to tackle problems as they come up. The unmanned aerial vehicles could be used for everything you’d imagine. For instance, the researchers are projecting the use of wide-winged UAVs for short or long-term surveillance or unmanned helicopters to rescue civilians or soldiers. In the case that one of these planes goes down over enemy territory, they’d be equipped with circuit boards that would simply dissolve to avoid giving any information over to the other side.
The company is describing their onboard, 3D printed aircraft as “the ultimate adaptable taskforce, with a lead aircraft able to enter any unknown scenario and quickly manufacture an effective tool set for any task”. The BAE R&D team in Warton, Lancashire, is only dreaming up scenarios for more than twenty years ago, so as a futurist and engineering manager with the team, Nick Colosimo, says, “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.”
The 3D printable drone is one of four such futuristic designs that the team hopes to be built by 2040. There’s also the Survivor, which is a plane that can heal damaged parts within minutes. Using a lightweight adhesive liquid, the Survivor could potentially enter a mission’s most dangerous territories and repair its own injuries.
The Transformer is a long-range aircraft which breaks up into a fleet of smaller vehicles when it gets to where it’s going. The military-grade Decepticon is described as “a flexible aircraft system that combines smaller jets for more efficient travel, before having them split apart to quickly adapt to any scenario”. After dividing, the sub-airplanes could perform a number of diverse missions, including offensive attacks, surveillance, and delivering supplies.
BAE futurists are also looking into a terrifying weapon that relies on directed energy systems (DES) to destroy missiles at the speed of light. This device would be an adaption of already used DES beams that protect ground troops from incoming aerial attacks. BAE envisions attaching such a weapon to an aircraft to get to missiles in mid-air.
The tech is still a ways off, but the company already invested £117m in R&D in 2013. If you like self-healing, laser firing, transforming drones that can 3D print on demand and you’re from England, then you’ll be happy to know that, in 2009-10, the British government spent £4 billion in subsidies on the defense contractor. If, like me, you are mortified by that sort of technology, your fears will be quelled that 2040 is a long ways away and that there are plenty of opportunities for humanity to veer away from a state of perpetual war to one of perpetual peace.