If 3D virtual reality and additive manufacturing (AM) are indicative of one direction that disruptive developments are taking the aerospace engineering sector, then another, even more radical innovation may make these technologies look like mere stepping stones within a generation. The fusing of emerging technologies from the aerospace materials sector and biological sciences are now, for the first time, heading toward the prospect of growing parts, systems, and, ultimately, perhaps whole aircraft. This is an exciting breakthrough that might help keep the development of new aerospace products affordable and at the same time more sustainable in a future world where the diminishing supply of conventional raw materials might struggle to cope with market needs.
New concepts have been developed by BAE Systems collaboratively as part of an open innovation approach to sharing technology and scientific ideas. Many such spin-off companies, often formed by and employing former university scientists and graduates, are experiencing rapid growth and represent some of the most innovative drivers of the new wave in innovation, possibly as a result of coming at challenges with blue-sky ideas, unconstrained by convention.
Imagine a machine that can synthesize chemicals and materials to grow another machine from a molecular level upwards. It sounds like pure science fiction but such a unique disruptive concept has emerged and it envisages the use of environmentally sustainable materials to support military operations where a swarm of small unmanned air vehicles could be built quickly for a specific purpose. Such a technology could also be used for making multi-functional parts for large aircraft.
Regius Professor Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow is pioneering a technology that investigates the challenge of growing an aircraft and BAE Systems is supporting his work by providing industrial advice as that work proceeds. In 2015 his company, Cronin Group PLC, acquired intellectual property from the university to develop the Chemputer (the trademarked name) as an autonomous universal digital synthesis engine, which is intended to open up chemistry to a wide user base via digitization.
By speeding up evolutionary processes and chemical reactions in the Chemputer, he anticipates that one day it could be capable of growing a small-scale, complex aircraft. Unlike a 3D printer, which places layers of matter to build up an object, the Chemputer will draw on advanced chemical processes to build up aircraft structures and some of their complex electronic systems from the molecular level, using environmentally sustainable materials. Cronin points out that such small aircraft could be designed and created in a matter of weeks, rather than years, and could support a wide range of military operations quickly and effectively. “This is a very exciting time in the development of chemistry,” he said.
Large stocks of such machines would not have to be held in storage areas but could be produced close to where they might be used and when required at relatively short notice, depending on the need and specific requirements, which might cover a range of missions.
“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,” said Cronin. “Creating small aircraft would be very challenging but the creative thinking and convergent digital technologies will eventually lead to the digital programming of complex chemical and material systems.”