Jul 4, 2016 | By Alec

As several recent military conflicts have emphasized, warfare is changing. The focus is shifting to attrition, guerilla warfare and home front terror, and as a result many militaries are working hard to become more flexible and create military forces that can rapidly adapt to any situation. It’s exactly why 3D printers are finding their way to warships for on-the-fly repairs and alterations. But a team of UK scientists and engineers from the University of Glasgow and BAE Systems are already looking much further than that. They are working on a chemical 3D printer called the Chemputer, which can grow highly advanced and bespoke unmanned aircraft in a matter of weeks.

This futuristic concept was unveiled ahead of this year’s Farnborough International Airshow. The Chemputer sounds like something that is coming straight out of science fiction, but this is molecular-level 3D printer that grows everything from wings to electronic systems is really under development. The idea, of course, is to quickly build military equipment close to the battlefield and adapt it to overcome any geographical, technological or numerical disadvantages an army might have. What’s more, the drones are envisioned to be highly functional, flying at ultra-fast speeds and high altitudes to even outpace missile systems and provide a rapid response behind enemy lines.

The developer is BAE Systems, which is very well known in military technology circles. The second largest defense contractor in the world, BAE Systems resulted from a £7.7 billion merger of Marconi Electronic Systems and British Aerospace in 1999. The company’s focus is currently on multinational security, aerospace and defense, and it has headquarters in London and Farnborough, as well as operations all over the world.

As the company revealed, they are essentially looking to overcome production limitations in today’s military environment. As all the necessary steps for aircraft production from design to production take years, it’s everything but efficient. Over the course of the 21rst century they will therefore focus on the production of bespoke UAVs, grown in lab environments in a number of weeks, by harnessing chemical growth procedures and encouraging evolution.

At the core of this concept is the Chemputer, which is being developed through BAE Systems’ collaborative ‘open innovation’ approach to scientific innovation. To build it, the company tapped Prof Lee Cronin from Glasgow University, while BAE Systems provides industrial advice. “The world of military and civil aircraft is constantly evolving and it's been exciting to work with scientists and engineers outside BAE Systems and to consider how some unique British technologies could tackle the military threats of the future,” said Professor Nick Colosimo, a BAE Systems Global Engineering Fellow.

In a nutshell, they are envisioning a 3D printer that prints environmentally sustainable molecules, rather than objects or layered structures. With the help of additives and nutrients, these molecules will be encouraged to grow into any necessary (functional) shape. This is obviously extremely ambitious, but not impossible. Numerous researchers are looking into harnessing chemical synthesis, though it will take quite a lot of effort to make it suitable for the production of complex electronic systems. Alternatively, it could also be used to produce parts for large manned aircraft, which might be a more realistic initial goal.

But in any case, professor Cronin was the first to admit that even tiny, basic drones would be very challenging to grow chemically. “This is a very exciting time in the development of chemistry. 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,” he said. But one thing seems obvious: 3D printing's potential reaches much farther than plastic layers.

 

 

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Chris wrote at 7/6/2016 11:07:10 PM:

Why not grow houses. not WAR materials!

Shannon Norrell wrote at 7/6/2016 7:00:49 PM:

What is the mechanism of action for the "ChemPuter" All I can find out about it is that it prints drones. This sounds like puffery. How does it work?

Jim Horn wrote at 7/6/2016 4:24:38 AM:

I'm not holding my breath. All aircraft performance is affected by weight so strength to weight ratio is vital. As such, optimized structural materials such as composites are intrinsically capable of yielding optimized performance. And all 3D printers are very limited there, at the very best. Further, aircraft consist of far more than their physical structure. There's also the hinges for moving controls, sensors and electronics to give it autonomy, a powerplant to make it go, fuel for same, and many other vital parts. Very little is 3D printable. I don't expect any 3D printers to do 7 nanometer geometry 10 layer metal depostition processors - the ion implantation alone rules that out. Makes for good headlines. But existing engineering is safe for some time.

Mason Robb wrote at 7/4/2016 3:38:05 PM:

Fascinating!



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