BAE Systems unveils military jet technology of the future

Aircraft with on-board 3D printers that can build drones while in flight are among the drawing-board concepts unveiled by BAE Systems this week.

The aerospace company has produced four early-stage ideas of what future military aircraft might be able to do, including jets that can join up to save fuel while travelling and split apart for different missions.

The other ideas, produced by BAE’s R&D team at Warton, include self-healing aircraft components that can recover from damage while in flight, and on-board energy weapons that can destroy fast-moving targets such as missiles.

Nick Colosimo, a futurist and engineering manager within the R&D 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.’

According to the proposals, the on-board 3D printers would combine additive manufacturing and robotic assembly techniques to produce different types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) depending on the mission.

A human controller would decide on the kind of UAV required: for example, wide-winged aircraft for protracted surveillance or rotary-winged UAVs to rescue individuals from dangerous situations.

After use, the UAVs could self-destruct by dissolving their circuit boards or safely land in a recoverable position if needed.

The flexible “Transformer” aircraft system would enable multiple sub-jets to travel as a single craft, increasing their range by reducing total drag and therefore saving fuel.

When they reach their target they could then split apart to adapt to the situation, for example with some craft performing surveillance and others mounting an attack.

The self-healing technology, meanwhile, would use a lightweight adhesive fluid inside a pattern of carbon nanotubes and released when the aircraft is damaged that would then ‘set’ while the craft is still in flight, increasing the plane’s survivability.

Next week’s Farnborough Air Show is likely to yield multiple concept designs for aerospace technology, as well as announcements about new projects and the unveiling of demonstrator aircraft.