Lab-Grown Drones Set To Take To The Skies

A device enabling synthetic chemical processes would create unmanned aircraft in a fraction of the time it currently takes to build them

BAE Systems
Jul 06, 2016 at 2:56 PM ET

Researchers at defense tech company BAE Systems and scientists from the University of Glasgow are working on a new, bold plan: To grow made-to-order drones in the lab with limited human input.

The U.S. military uses about a dozen different types of drones for all sorts of tasks, from conducting surveillance to dropping bombs. But as the demands of armed conflicts change, such limited designs might not be enough, and it can take years before a new model is ready for deployment. 

These drones, on the other hand, could be ready in a matter of weeks. Military officials would select the attributes they would need in a drone—for instance, stealth, surveillance, and speed. A proprietary machine called a Chemputer, which could facilitate advanced chemical processes, would synthesize those requirements into a design. Then, a series of highly engineered chemical reactions would assemble the drone.

The materials would be environmentally sustainable, BAE said in a release, and durable enough to accomplish a number of tasks, such as dropping emergency supplies in remote regions or flying at high altitudes and speeds to avoid enemy missiles. The Chemputer could even assemble some of their sophisticated electronics needed for drones to function. 

This isn’t the first time scientists have worked on making biodegradable drones—one had its first test flight in 2014—but if Chemputer works as the researchers anticipate, the drones it creates could be significantly more sophisticated, in both function and design.

As of now, the idea is in its earliest stages. Researchers are still figuring out just what kinds of chemical reactions would be necessary to grow these unmanned aircraft, according to, and they aren’t providing a timeline for when their mass production could become a possibility. For now, only computer renderings exist. 

Lee Cronin, a chemistry professor at the University of Glasgow who has collaborated on the project, said in the press release that though assembling small drones will be “very challenging,” he’s confident that “creative thinking and convergent digital technologies” will someday make these devices a reality.