Requests for backup might usually trigger a halt in a military operations, but two fast-moving technologies could one day combine to deliver much-needed reinforcements exactly where they're needed. Such is the vision of defense firm BAE Systems, which sees aircraft having advanced onboard 3D printers that are capable of producing UAVs for wide-ranging military purposes.

At the intersection of drones and 3D printing technologies, there have been some notable creations in recent times. Engineers from University of Southampton developed the world's first printed aircraft back in 2011, while more recently we've seen a minimalistic UAV that can be printed and laucnhed within 24 hours. As for airborne 3D printers, a foam-squirting quadcopter has highlighted the potential for robots to carry out important tasks in hard to reach or unsafe areas.

Scientists and engineers at BAE Systems anticipate such advances in both 3D printing and drone technologies that by 2040, military aircraft could be fitted with onboard 3D printers to produce different types of UAVs on-demand. Depending on the scenario, the printer might produce a multi-rotor copter for the rescue of civilians, or a wide-winged vehicle for prolonged surveillance. This would constitute a highly versatile task-force, with a primary aircraft deployed and then able to manufacture a fleet of smaller, purpose-built vehicles depending on the scenario.

The vision for the 3D printing aircraft forms part of larger predictions for future aircraft technologies unveiled by BAE Systems. Other forward-thinking concepts include something called The Transformer where three aircraft fly as one until a threat is detected or different tasks need to be performed, then they can split apart and fly off in different directions. A UAV that's able to to take out missile threats with a directed energy weapon and a jet that can repair damage while in the air have also been put forward.

"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," says Nick Colosimo, Futurist and Engineering Manager of BAE System's Research and Development team.

You can see the team's vision for the 3D-printing aircraft in the animation below.

Source: BAE Systems