Home » Researchers develop ‘bee-like’ 3D printing drones to build and repair structures

Researchers develop ‘bee-like’ 3D printing drones to build and repair structures

by Sion Geschwindt
Researchers develop 'bee-like' 3D printing drones to build and repair structures

Imperial College London and Empa researchers have created a fleet of bee-inspired 3D printing drones that build and repair structures while flying

The technology, which has been tested in the lab, could ultimately be used for manufacturing and building in difficult-to-access or dangerous locations such as tall buildings or help with post-disaster relief construction, say the researchers. 

The research team, who published their work in Nature yesterday, say this new approach to 3D printing is inspired by natural builders like bees and wasps who work together to create large, intricate structures.  

The drones in the fleet, known collectively as Aerial Additive Manufacturing (Aerial-AM), work co-operatively from a single blueprint, adapting their techniques as they go.

Aerial-AM uses both a 3D printing and path-planning framework to help the drones adapt to variations in geometry of the structure as a build progresses. The fleet consists of BuilDrones, which deposit materials during flight, and quality-controlling ScanDrones that continually measure the BuilDrones output and inform their next manufacturing steps. 

They are fully autonomous while flying but are monitored by a human controller who checks progress and intervenes if necessary, based on the information provided by the drones. 

Swarms of drones could also be used in space, for example on a future Mars mission. Image: Yusuf Furkan KAYA, Aerial Robotics Laboratory, Imperial College London / Empa

Lead author Professor Kovac, of Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics and Empa’s Materials and Technology Centre of Robotics, said: “We’ve proved that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab.”

To test the concept, the researchers developed four bespoke cementitious mixtures for the drones to build with.  

Throughout the build, the drones assessed the printed geometry in real time and adapted their behaviour to ensure they met the build specifications, with manufacturing accuracy of five millimetres.  

The proof-of-concept prints included a 2.05-metre high cylinder (72 layers) with a polyurethane-based foam material, and an 18-centimetre high cylinder (28 layers) with a custom-designed structural cementitious material. 

3D printing is taking off

3D printing is taking off in the construction industry. Both on-site and in the factory, static and mobile robots are printing a range of structures, from two-storey family homes to lunar landing infrastructure for space missions.

While it is still a niche technology in the building industry, additive manufacturing techniques like 3D printing have been lauded as one solution to some of construction’s greatest challenges.

The construction industry contributes 40% of global carbon emissions, a third of all the world’s waste, and remains one of the most dangerous sectors to work in. 

3D printing has been shown to mitigate onsite injuries, reduce material costs and waste, and lower the carbon footprint of construction projects.

Professor Kovac said: “We believe our fleet of drones could help reduce the costs and risks of construction in the future, compared to traditional manual methods.” 

Current 3D printing construction approaches are ground based. Essentially the size of the structure is limited by the size of the printer. However, the researchers believe the 3D printing drones can overcome these limitations, offering future possibilities for building larger structures using an entire swarm of 3D printing drones.

A simulation demonstrating how fleets of BuilDrones could be used to not just repair but build large structures. Credit: Autonomous Manufacturing Lab, UCL

The researchers say the technology also offers future possibilities for building and repairing structures in tall or other hard-to-access locations, and to repair things like facades, pylons or pipelines.

The work was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (part of UKRI), the Royal Society, the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Programme, Royal Thai Government Scholarship and a University of Bath Research Scholarship.

The project is also supported by industrial partners Skanska, Ultimaker, Buro Happold, and BRE. 

Going forward, the researchers will now work with construction companies to validate the solutions and provide repair and manufacturing capabilities.  

Further reading:

Co-investigators include Robert Stuart-Smith, Stefan Leutenegger, Vijay Pawar, Richard Ball, Chris Williams and Paul Shepherd, and their research teams at UCL, University of Bath, University of Pennsylvania, Queen Mary University of London, and Technical University of Munich (TUM).

It was launched by Assistant Professor Stuart-Smith at UCL and University of Pennsylvania and Professor Kovac at Imperial and Empa after a pilot research collaboration and award for a demonstration on pipeline repair.  

Main Image credit: Imperial College London

Read next: Young entrepreneur opens 3D-printed school in Madagascar

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