In a project that sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, defense specialist BAE Systems plans to chemically ‘grow’ drones in large vats.

The U.K.-based defense company is working with the University of Glasgow on the concept, which aims to ‘grow’ Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in large-scale labs using chemistry. The project could help create specially-designed aircraft in weeks, rather than years.

At the heart of the initiative is a “Chemputer” machine that would use advanced chemical processes to grow aircraft and some of their electronic systems.

Very much a future project, scant details are available on how the Chemputer will work, although BAE systems says the machine could conceivably “grow” the drones from a molecular level. The technology could also be used to produce parts for large manned aircraft.

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The ambitious program could be up and running sometime during this century, according to the defense company.

“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 statement.

“This is a very exciting time in the development of chemistry,” said University of Glasgow Professor Lee Cronin, in the statement. “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.”

Cronin, who is founding scientific director of the Cronin Group, and is developing the Chemputer, acknowledges that creating small aircraft will be very challenging, but thinks that the technology will one day become reality. “I’m confident that creative thinking and convergent digital technologies will eventually lead to the digital programming of complex chemical and material systems,” he explained.

Potential missions for the lab-grown drones could include delivering emergency supplies for special forces and deploying small surveillance aircraft.

BAE Systems is no stranger to battlefield innovation, from huge combat tractors to 3D-vision technology for troops, although its plan to ‘grow’ drones would be a significant manufacturing breakthrough.

Other organizations are also pushing the envelope for drone technology. Rutgers University, for example, has developed a propeller-driven drone that can fly both in the air and underwater.

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