By all accounts, we’re given to believe that the jets of the future will be pretty cool. DARPA says they won’t need runways or even pilots, while NASA wants to fly at supersonic speeds without the problem of sonic boom. Meanwhile, explorers are trying to circumnavigate the world on solar power, and researchers are working to control planes with their minds.
Now British aerospace company BAE systems is getting into the future-gazing game with some predictions of what military aircraft might look like by 2040. The four designs they unveiled hit all the current futurist buzzwords, with inevitable references to drones, 3D printing, and nanotech.
BAE’s R&D team call the concepts “drawing board” technologies—i.e. don’t get your hopes up that these will actually materialise. As the team’s futurist and engineering manager Nick Colosimo 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.”
And as our current best efforts in airplane tech aren’t exactly living up to expectations, why not indulge in a little future-dreaming?
One of the concepts actually combines 3D printing and drones, for real futurist street cred. The idea is that a plane flying over a disaster area could 3D-print various UAVs to support its mission with an on-board printer. Mission control would decide which UAVs could be helpful, and send them to print as needed. The animation for this concept shows a quadcopter rescuing someone from a lava flow (personally, I’d be a little hesitant to get my head that close to blades that size).
In fact, all four concepts very much emphasise the whole saving-people aspect. Unsurprisingly, there’s no attempt to address the rather less cheery way airborne technologies like drones are in fact already being used, especially by the US military.
Even a “directed energy weapon” is sold as something that could be used defensively to tackle other missiles, with the goal to “protect the people below.” That takes the idea of directed energy weapons—like the lasers that can bring down drones—and adapts it so it’s mounted onto an aircraft. The aircraft could then use the speed-of-light energy beam to bring down targets in mid-air. Better keep a close eye on those 3D-printed drones, then.
Then there’s a “Transformer” aircraft, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a plane or UAV that breaks up into smaller planes. The smaller craft can then combine again to re-form the super-plane mid-air, like when the Power Rangers join forces to make a Megazord.
Finally, a self-healing plane uses nanotech vaguely described as a “lightweight adhesive fluid inside a pattern of carbon nanotubes” to repair damage to its body.
There’s no real suggestion that BAE is looking to develop these technologies past the concept phase, though they’re not as far out as they might sound. We’ve already seen nanotech capable of repairing gashes, for instance, and 3D-printed drones have long been an idea both for military and hobbyist applications.
And if they’re not actually used in the aircraft designs of the future, they might at least make for a pretty badass line of kids’ toys.