3D Printed drones – the future of air war?

New technologies are exciting enough on their own, but it’s when people start combining them that things get really interesting. Look at drones, for example. They’ve been around for a while, in fact, but compact electric motors and better control technologies are revolutionising them. Fifty years ago the average drone was something like the Ryan Model 147, a pilotless jet plane used for photo reconnaissance during the Vietnam War. It was 25 feet long, weighed well over a ton and carried about a million dollars’ worth of cameras. Now you can get a compact camera drone on Amazon for £30.

So what happens if you take the basic drone idea, then combine it with networked warfare and 3D printing? The US Air Force, with some help from a lab at MIT, are trying to find out. They want a mini-drone that can be launched from the networked F-35 fighter aircraft. This controversial plane might not be the fastest or most agile fighter in the world, but it has an amazing set of sensors. The idea behind networked warfare is that an F-35 can share data over a secure network, highlighting targets that other aircraft can attack.

One way the F-35 can collect data without revealing its own location is to launch tiny drones. These could send signals to fool the enemy, or collect electronic warfare data and send it back to the F-35. The problem is, no existing drone could be launched from a fighter. They’re all either too big, too heavy or too fragile.

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