Transformer jets, self-healing aircraft and UAVs printed with 3D printers: future of aviation unveiled

Scientists and engineers at BAE Systems have released some interesting details about some futuristic technologies that could be operative by 2040. Or earlier.

BAE Systems has been studying futuristic aircraft shapes for quite some time.

The projects the British Defense company is  working on were recently unveiled through a series of animations which show how civil and military aviation of the future could be based on 3D printers capable to print UAVs on-the-fly during a mission; aircraft that can heal themselves; a Transformer long range aircraft which splits into a number of smaller aircraft when it reaches its target, and a directed energy weapon that could engage missiles at the speed of light.

The Transformer is a flexible aircraft system that combines smaller jets: it’s a sort of mothership made of smaller sub-aircraft which can be combined together to increase the range, reduce the overall aerodynamic drag and save fuel during the transit to the area of operations.

Once the mothership has reached the target area, each single craft can split off to conduct its specific mission: attack, surveillance, airdrop to name but few.

The Survivor technology will be used to develop new aircraft and give them the possibility repair any damage sustained during the mission in flight.

The self-healing technology could improve survivability of the aircraft employed in high lethality scenarios. It is based on advanced materials: “a lightweight adhesive fluid inside a pattern of carbon nanotubes from which the aircraft is constructed and is released when damaged to quickly ‘set’ mid-flight and heal any damage,” according to BAE Systems.

Directed Energy Systems (something that has been studied in the U.S. for a long time)  is instead an on board weapon used to concentrate a low cost beam of energy at the speed of light against enemy aircraft, weapons (missiles, mortars, projecticles). In other words, it could be a laser cannon, used to hit and destroy ground and air targets with much accuracy.

Furthermore, BAE Systems foresees the use of hi-tech on-board 3D Printers that, via Additive Layer Manufacturing and robotic assembly techniques, could be used to create small unmanned aircraft on-the-fly, based on the inputs sent by a human operator from the ground control station. Needless to say, such a way to create drones could be useful in various types of mission, including air strike, surveillance or SAR (Search And Rescue) operations, during which drone copters could be created to rescue and recover single civilians or soldiers.

Even more interestingly, “after use the UAVs could render themselves useless through dissolving circuit boards or they might safely land in a recoverable position if re-use was required,” in order to prevent capture.

Even if these concepts may seem a bit futuristic and remind Terminator or Transformer movies, they will probably be the base of the future aerial warfare.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. This is very interesting and quite visionary but we’re at a crossroads now just like they were at the beginning of the jet age. The designs produced in the 1950s for rocket-powered and jet-powered aircraft were amazingly futuristic and visionary just as these designs are here. The drawback nowadays though is affordability. Price tags mattered little during the early Cold War, whereas nowadays, with ballooning costs due to any number of factors not limited to mission creep, advanced designs, contractor overcharging, et cetera cost is a MAJOR issue. When it comes to military aviation, the more novel something is, the more costly it is, and the less likely it is that it will be adopt.

  2. I can’t wait till aliens come to this Earth, It will make this look like a toy.

  3. Seems like a lot of nonsense.
    Parasitic aircraft that potentially have to rely on two other aircraft not being shot down in order to return home?

    Or laser weapon in a small aircraft with all the energy, heat, optics, blooming and cost problems that would entail?

    Not only that but operating in a world where nobody has worked out that inclement weather, laser diffusion techniques and (assuming the 3d printing thing works out) a barrage of much cheaper missiles could easily defeat or overwhelm such a system.

    The self healing might work- but probably not as seen in the video.

    Ditto the 3d printing- I doubt it would be a cost effective thing for an individual aircraft to do and a ground station is more likely- It would end companies like BAE and Lockheed though. Who would need them in a world where anyone can submit a design?

    There are two things that I think are more likely than all of this ‘uncontested skies’ vision of the world-

    1) Stealth will be rendered practically useless by better radars, scanning and optical techniques.

    2) Active defence systems will make there way onto combat aircraft meaning A2A missiles will either become redundant or be revolutionised and, perhaps, ushering an era where dogfighting becomes relevant again.

  4. I don’t think that the project is plausible, infact the number of jet engines needed in a big surface airplane are expressed in a regressive function rather than a proportional function. Because of the lift ot the air, which supports better the airplanes with big wings with few engines. the project show pieces of the transformer bird have engine (with their huge weight) rather than fuel. So much weight for engine (not running to save up fuel) is much much worse than weight for fuel.

  5. Well unlike “none of your business” with his obsession with the word “stupid” I’m at least curious with some of the design approaches. Sure, some of it doesn’t look very practical but for the 3-drone set we also know that a “single wing” using the B2 for an example has different characteristics than more “conventional” manned air-craft. Price per drone “piece” cost may be completely dependent on a cost per multiplication factor of each drone working together. Do they save any fuel while working in unison?

    I have a suspicion of the two in the back specifically designed for being the alternate “casualty” as to the main body. Having one to do reconnaissance and the other heck out of loitering around lower altitudes or increased danger.

    I’ll admit the name was a bit of a dull choice by BAE but self-healing of a smaller scale could be doable. Say there are hoses spread out in veins with chip remote nozzles where upon impacts it’ll do spray the area with “first aid” material akin to a glue? Heck, certain materials may even become a second layer to wires or even to close up other leaks. At this would be a idea for smaller scale procedures… and won’t have to cost billions.

    Apparently modern ships fill some rooms and bulkheads with certain gases to eliminate sparks and fires which are great for those situations blazing in the ammo storage. Every help counts, especially when its protecting a multi-billion dollar military project.

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