3D-Printing Drones Could Lead To On-Site Construction

A team of researchers led by the Empa institute, the University of Pennsylvania, and Imperial College London have created cooperative, flying, 3D-printing drones that are capable of building and repairing structures while in flight. The team believes that in-flight 3D printing could lead to on-site construction in difficult-to-access or dangerous locations, such as post-disaster construction, tall buildings, and in space.

These bio-inspired drones mimic the activities of bees and wasps, working  in swarms and communicating with each other . The system – called Aerial Additive Manufacturing (Aerial-AM) – consists of two types of quadcopter drones that work together from a single blueprint. The two types of drones are: “BuilDrones” -which deposit layers of material during flight; and “ScanDrones” that check for quality control by measuring their output and helping to control them. They are fully autonomous in flight, but there is a human controller who monitors their progress and can intervene if necessary, based on feedback provided by the drone. 

The drones were tested by having them construct objects from four different cement-like mixtures which were developed for the project. The drones were able to assess the printed geometry in real time and adapt their behavior to meet the build specifications to within five millimeters. The research team now has plans to work with construction companies to validate the solutions and provide repair and manufacturing capabilities. 

“We’ve proven that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab,” said research leader Mirko Kovac. “Our solution is scalable and could help us to construct and repair buildings in difficult-to-reach areas in the future.”