Future aircraft could come with advanced 3D printers for specialized drone production


July 7, 2014

According to BAE Systems researchers, military aircraft could be fitted with 3D printers to create different drone types depending on the mission objective

According to BAE Systems researchers, military aircraft could be fitted with 3D printers to create different drone types depending on the mission objective

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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

About the Author
Nick Lavars Nick was born outside of Melbourne, Australia, with a general curiosity that has drawn him to some distant (and very cold) places. Somewhere between enduring a winter in the Canadian Rockies and trekking through Chilean Patagonia, he graduated from university and pursued a career in journalism. Having worked for publications such as The Santiago Times and The Conversation, he now writes for Gizmag from Melbourne, excited by tech and all forms of innovation, the city's bizarre weather and curried egg sandwiches. All articles by Nick Lavars

Great scenario for military science fiction.

3D printing isn't going to save the day with a "printed" UAV rescue vehicle in any near future that includes reality. The idea has merit, but technically, it's improbable until someone comes up with a Star Trek Replicator.


"by 2040, military aircraft could be fitted with onboard 3D printers to produce different types of UAVs on-demand"

2040? Are they expecting 3-D printing technology to grind to a halt for a few decades? This seems stunningly un-ambitious. Even low-end consumer printers can already do most of this now - I would fully expect even the most measly military budget to produce practical prototypes within a couple of years.

To be fair, I am ignoring the 'Halliburton factor' of stretching out a trivial spec to feed the gravy train for many years...


Ok let me get this straight, first the phantom aircraft reports on the volcano erupting. Someone or perhaps a satellite already reported the phenomena. But you feel you must send an unmanned aircraft /3D printing factory to report back, while the operator monitors his satellite fed, waves his/her hand and a miracle laser produces an another aircraft inside a moving flying internal hangar. Which once complete flips the plane to the outside world in flight, and with complete fuel, electronics on board flies or perhaps glides off.

Meanwhile on a sunny dry day there is a lone humanoid standing on a thatched roof waving for HELP? The next scene we see a quad copter being dropped from this plane, or the previous flying factory, again full fuel, and avionics radar, cameras etc. to swoop down find, deploy a harness, and rescue the humanoid, while back at headquarters the controller gives a thumbs up.

With all the 3D printing that can currently be done not one single printer can do all the functional things required to produce it into one fully functional aircraft much less while moving.

However if many minds can put these machines together into one universal replicator.

Over a quarter century and we are just scratching the surface of printing human organs, electrical circuits, power sources, and almost anything else we can think of.

However many problems not enough time to list, but not least of which is actual print time involved.

Bob Flint

Essentially they will bedazzle some politician with free vacations and this BS idea and get federal grants to research it. Of course its not an actual vacation, its an offsite meeting in the bahamas with an attractive representative of the company to talk about the merits of the idea. Your tax money at work.

I want to patent my idea of solar powered air purifying billboards that provide housing for the homeless and 3D prints drones to assist people on the nearby road after accidents. Early projections are that it will save a trillion/month and create enough jobs to eliminate unemployment. There are plants on top of the roof solar panels but on sunny summer days they will still make enough energy to use the extra for cancer research.

Now I just need to hire Kate Upton to sell the idea to some people in government for funding.


as an engineer and 3d print hobbyist let me be the first to say "BWHAHAHAHAHA!" Thank you.

Artisteroi Rlsh Gadgeteer

I don't believe manufacturing UAVs on site is practical because so many necessary components will have to come from traditional factories well beyond 25 years from now. Specifically, the different parts of the drive train, avionics & munitions. A picture of the Transformer concept will be very helpful. What will an aircraft that can split into 3 independent aircraft look like? "A UAV that's able to to take out missile threats with a directed energy weapon" is unclear. Does that mean going after missiles while they're still on the ground, or a UAV that defends a manned aircraft from SAMs & air to air missiles that have already been shot at it? A link(s) to longer descriptions of these ideas by BAE itself would have been helpful.

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