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3D printing drones to repair buildings in flight

Engineers have installed 3D printers on drones and used them as flying robots capable of repairing buildings and other structures.

Researchers from Imperial College London in the UK and Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, developed the fleet of bee-inspired flying 3D printers and tested them in the lab. The goal is to use the drones for manufacturing and construction in hard-to-reach or dangerous places such as high-rise buildings or to help with disaster relief construction.

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Drones can be programmed to use collective building methods inspired by natural builders like bees and wasps working together to create large, complex structures.

The drones in the fleet, known collectively as Aerial Additive Manufacturing (Aerial-AM), work cooperatively from a single plane, adapting their techniques as they go. They are fully autonomous in flight but are monitored by a human controller who checks progress and intervenes if necessary, based on information provided by the drones.

Professor Kovac, head of the study, from Imperial Oil’s Department of Aeronautics and Empa’s Center for Robotics Materials and Technology, said: “We have proven that drones can operate autonomously. and in tandem to build and repair buildings, at least in the lab. Our solution is scalable and could help us construct and repair buildings in hard-to-reach areas in the future. »

Constructor drones and scanners

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

To test the concept, researchers developed four custom cement mixes that drones can build with.

Throughout the build, the drones evaluated the printed geometry and tweaked their behavior to ensure they met build specifications, with five millimeter manufacturing accuracy.

The proof-of-concept prints included a 2 m (6.5 ft) high cylinder of 72 layers of a polyurethane-based foam material and a 18 cm (7 in) high cylinder of 28 layers made with a custom designed structural cementitious material.

The next stage of the project is to work with construction companies to validate the solutions and provide repair and manufacturing capabilities, Imperial College London said.

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