Futuristic concept technologies for future aircraft have been unveiled by scientists and engineers at BAE Systems.
The ‘drawing board’ technologies include on-board 3D printers so advanced they could print smaller unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) during a mission; self-healing aircraft parts; long range aircraft that divide into smaller aircraft when they reach their destination, and an anti-missile directed energy weapon.
The four technologies, which BAE says could be incorporated in military and civil aircraft by 2040, are the brainchild of experts at the company’s R&D team at its base in Warton, Lancashire, which works with the UK's leading aviation thinkers from universities, government and a range of companies to predict and explore how aircraft engineering might evolve.
Nick Colosimo, a futurist and engineering manager within the team 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."
On-board 3D printing
The on-board 3D printer would rely on a combination of additive layer manufacturing and robotic assembly techniques to allow a human controller to create bespoke UAVs perfectly suited to the scenario at hand – for instance, a group of wide-winged aircraft for protracted surveillance or rotary-winged drones to rescue single civilians or soldiers from dangerous situations.
If they are operating in hostile territory the drones could render themselves useless with the installation of dissolving circuit boards, or they could land in a recoverable position if they are needed for further use.
BAE Systems believes the technology 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".
Another concept, dubbed the Transformer, is an aircraft system that features a number of smaller sub-aircraft that can combine together to form one aircraft for more efficient travel, by increasing range and saving fuel through reduced 'drag'.
Once they reach their objective, the aircraft can then split into several smaller aircraft allowing it to perform multiple tasks at once and adapt to any given situation – whether that is going on the offensive if threatened, or performing functional tasks such as surveillance or the dropping of supplies.
Directed energy systems, which fire a concentrated beam of energy at the speed of light, are already in use on modern-battlefields to protect ground troops from incoming projectiles such as missiles or mortars.
According to BAE, in the future these could be adapted into an attachment for aircraft, taking that capability to the air, allowing fast-moving jets to destroy targets mid-air with incredible accuracy, at a low cost per beam and with a very deep magazine.
Directed energy systems
The final technology proposed by the BAE R&D team, known as the Survivor, is a lightweight adhesive fluid inside a pattern of carbon nanotubes from which the aircraft is constructed that is released when the aircraft sustains damage to 'set' in minutes mid-flight and repair any structural faults.
All four technologies are still at an early 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.