Modern military aircraft are so complex that fighters like the F-35 Lightning II or the Typhoon take 20 years to go from drawing board to deployment at phenomenal costs. With design work already starting on next-generation fighters for the 2040s, BAE Systems and the University of Glasgow are looking at a faster, cheaper way to produce unmanned air vehicles (UAV), where they aren't constructed, but grown in computer-controlled chemical vats in a matter weeks.
This vision of the future of aircraft design and manufacturing was outlined ahead of the upcoming Farnborough International Airshow, which runs from July 11 to 17. The purpose of this concept isn't just to cut cost and the painfully long development cycle of military aviation hardware. It's also a reflection of the growing emphasis on swarms of smaller drone aircraft that can be built to custom specifications for specific missions over manned aircraft.
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Such use of bespoke UAVs would require radically shorter development and manufacturing cycles, which inspired BAE's vision of growing them in huge chemical vats to create near-complete airframes and systems.
The key to this is the "Chemputer" – a combination of the computer with chemical manufacturing. Originally developed by Regius Professor Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow, and Founding Scientific Director at Cronin Group PLC, it's a sort of advanced 3D printer that works on a molecular level. It's original purpose was to use simple, locally-available chemicals to produce pharmaceuticals quickly and cheaply. Now, the technology is being envisaged as a way to produce full-blown aircraft and their electrical systems.
For the BAE concept, the Chemputer would be part of a system to enable the building of UAVs or multi-functional parts for large manned aircraft on a molecular level out of environmentally sustainable materials using advanced chemical processes. The result would be be to allow mission specific drones to be built in a very short timeframe. Developers could choose from a menu of capabilities and the Chemputer would bring together the necessary technologies and grow them.
In this way, fleets of small drones that could be made quickly to carry out a variety of missions. They could drop supplies to special forces, carry out surveillance, or operate at speeds and altitudes that would make them invulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles.
"This is a very exciting time in the development of chemistry," says Cronin. "We have been developing routes to digitize 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."
The animation below shows how the warplanes of the future might be created.Source: BAE Systems