Lab-grown drones could be the future of warfare

Anyone that’s ever thrown over a table and shouted their throat raw at a model airplane kit will tell you one thing: putting together aircraft takes a frustratingly long time. And that’s just toy replicas. Imagine trying to build a working, military Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Total ballache.

If you wanted to build a drone using standard manufacturing techniques, it can take years from planning initial schematics to flying the final product. 3D printing has helped shorten the manufacturing process, but it’s limited in its scope when you start talking about aircraft that needs to perform in a warzone.

So here’s a sinister vision of the future for you – vast warehouses where the flying, robotic armies of the future are grown in enormous vats. That’s the plan of scientists at Glasgow University, in co-operation with arms-manufacturing firm BAE Systems, who are developing a way for drones to be put together in labs using advanced chemical processes.

The researchers aren’t giving much away about what exactly these chemical processes are, but they have said they’re making a “Chemputer”, which would grow aircraft and their electronic systems from a molecular level using environmentally sustainable materials. Because it’s good to know you’re protecting the environment when you’re building a drone brood.

“This is a very exciting time in the development of chemistry. We have been developing routes to digitise 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 the University of Glasgow’s Professor Lee Cronin – founding scientific director of the group working on the Chemputer.

The moderately terrifying video suggests that the Chemputer will allow the military to make custom UAVs in a matter of weeks, instead of years. This would in theory allow drones to be built bespoke for various combat scenarios, and the speed of production would presumably lessen the monetary risk of putting those drones into action.

Custom-made surveillance and combat drones could lessen the need for human soldiers. While this could reduce casualties sustained by those soldiers, it could also, arguably, tip the balance towards drone-warfare-by-default. Given that the statistics around civilian deaths caused by drone strikes are still unclear, a much greater amount of legal and moral introspection is needed before that future should be considered.

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