A team of researchers from Imperial College London, UK, developed drones capable of 3D printing to build and repair structures while flying, according to a study published in Nature. The authors believe this technology could be used to build structures in locations with difficult or dangerous access or help in post-disaster reconstruction efforts.
3D printing is gaining momentum in construction. Static and mobile robots print materials for use in construction projects, including customised steel and concrete structures. Taking it a step further, a team of researchers from Imperial College London and Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories of Materials Science and Technology, used drones capable of collective building methods — inspired by natural builders like bees and wasps — to create large, intricate structures.
The drones, known as Aerial Additive Manufacturing (Aerial-AM), work in cooperation from a single blueprint adapting their build as they go. They are entirely independent while flying, but their work is monitored by a human, who can intervene if needed.
“We’ve proved that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab. Our solution is scalable and could help us to construct and repair buildings in difficult-to-reach areas in the future,” said lead author Professor Kovac of Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics and Empa’s Materials and Technology Center of Robotics.
Aerial-AM uses 3D printing combined with a path-planning framework to tell the drones how to adapt to variations as the build progresses. The fleet includes BuildDrones, which add materials to the build, and ScanDrones, which control the quality and measure the BuildDRones’ work.
To test how the drones work, the team developed four cement-based mixtures for the drones to use. As they were building, the drones assessed the blueprint in real time and adapted their behaviour to ensure they met build specifications, with an accuracy of five millimeters. The proof-of-concept construction included a 2.05 m cylinder using polyurethane foam and an 18cm cylinder using cement.
The next step is to work with construction companies to evaluate the results and provide repair and manufacturing capabilities. “We believe our fleet of drones could help reduce the costs and risks of construction in the future, compared to traditional manual methods,” concluded Professor Kovac.
Zhang, K., Chermprayong, P., Xiao, F. et al. Aerial additive manufacturing with multiple autonomous robots. Nature 609, 709–717 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04988-4