Drones to build new structures using 3D technology

A team of researchers from Imperial College London, UK, has developed drones capable of 3D printing to build and repair structures in flight, according to a study published in Nature. The authors believe this technology could be used to build structures in hard-to-reach or dangerous places or to aid in post-disaster reconstruction efforts.

3D printing is gaining momentum in construction. Static and mobile robots print materials for use in construction projects, including custom steel and concrete structures. To go further, a team of researchers from Imperial College London and Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, used drones capable of collective building methods – inspired by natural builders like bees and wasps – to create large, complex structures. .

The drones, known as aerial additive manufacturing (Aerial-AM), operate cooperatively from a single blueprint adapting their construction as they go. They are fully autonomous in flight, but their work is monitored by a human, who can intervene if necessary.

“We have proven that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the laboratory. Our solution is scalable and could help us construct and repair buildings in hard-to-reach areas in the future,” said lead author Professor Kovac of Imperial Oil’s Department of Aeronautics and the Center of Empa’s Materials and Technology Robotics.

Aerial-AM uses 3D printing combined with a trajectory planning framework to instruct drones on how to adapt to variations as construction progresses. The fleet includes BuildDrones, which add materials to construction, and ScanDrones, which quality control and measure the work of BuildDRones.

To test how the drones work, the team developed four cement-based mixes for the drones to use. As they built, the drones evaluated the plan in real time and adjusted their behavior to ensure they met construction specifications, with five millimeter accuracy. The proof-of-concept construction included a 2.05 m cylinder of polyurethane foam and an 18 cm cylinder of cement.

The next step is to work with construction companies to evaluate results and provide repair and fabrication capabilities. “We believe that our drone fleet could help reduce construction costs and risks in the future, compared to traditional manual methods,” Professor Kovac concluded.

Zhang, K., Chermprayong, P., Xiao, F. et al. Aerial additive manufacturing with several autonomous robots. Nature 609, 709–717 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04988-4