Can we really grow aircraft?

BAE systems and a professor at Glasgow University have revealed a way to really grow drones with an advanced form of chemical 3D printing.

The news has already swept the mainstream news sites, even though this is little more than a theoretical exercise right now. Professor Lee Cronin, the man behind the concept, freely admits that he has a mountain to climb to turn this dream into a reality.

The video, then, which depicts a pair of printer heads laying the absolute basics in a vat before the drone literally grows from almost nothing, is really a pipe dream right now.

Would it be a shock?

But 3D printing is driving forward at such a rate that it wouldn’t be the biggest shock if this happens sooner, rather than later. Now the scientific community has the idea to work with, the sharpest minds on the planet can combine and we could be staring at home grown aircraft before we know it.

The advantages from a military perspective are clear. The aircraft could be produced on site, close to the action. The military could produce as many as it requires and they could be ready in days, if not hours.

These drones, theoretically, could outrun missiles and be the first port of call for rapid response missions.

“The world of military and civil aircraft is constantly evolving. It has been exciting to work with scientists and engineers outside BAE Systems and to consider how some unique British technologies could tackle the military threats of the future,” said Professor Nick Colosimo, a global engineering fellow at BAE Systems.

BAE systems wants to grow drones

Drones can do nice things too

Not everything in this world has to be a killing machine, too. The potential for these drones to help scan remote parts of the world, deliver emergency supplies and even fight fires is just as intriguing for the scientific community. Military budgets, though, could help get these drones off the computer screens and into the real world.

The production method goes beyond drones, too. If Cronin and BAE systems can truly master this ‘autonomous digital synthesis engine’ then they can clearly build machinery of great complexity from a molecular level upwards.

Such carefully controlled, structured growth must have applications for the medical world, too.

Conflict can be the mother of invention

3D printing has a great deal to offer the military as a whole and it has become a cliché that war drives development for a reason. Some of the greatest technical breakthroughs in aerospace and even automotive history have come from the ‘arms race mentality’ that goes with a conflict.

Naval ships now routinely carry 3D printers, 3D printed parts have just entered Jupiter’s atmosphere on the Juno satellite and we’re moving towards a future where entire planes and space craft are produced with additive manufacturing. This new method where planes literally grow in vats like a cell culture is some way off, but there are all kinds of reasons to make this a reality.

If we can grow drones, then we can grow other things. Why not computers, smartphones, cars and other things? Why not major systems for tomorrow’s passenger jet?

The sharing economy

There’s no reason at all. This is all part of BAE Systems’ ‘open innovation’ approach. This is a strategy that involves sharing tech and ideas with academic institutions and small start-ups for the greater good and, of course, for business development.

Cronin, the Regius Professor at the University of Glasgow and founding scientific director at Cronin Group PLC, said: “We have been developing routes to digitise synthetic and materials chemistry and at some point in the future hope to assemble complex objects in a machine from the bottom up, or with minimal human assistance.

“Creating small aircraft would be very challenging, but I’m confident that creative thinking and convergent digital technologies will eventually lead to the digital programming of complex chemical and material systems.”

There are so many different mechanisms to achieve the same goal and the Chemputer is just another one right now. The potential is, frankly, amazing, and we simply have to watch from the sidelines in quiet awe as some of the world’s sharpest minds shape tomorrow’s world.