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Autonomous drones work together to 3D print cement structures

Professional Engineering

An autonomous drone 3D prints a structure from a cement-like material (Credit: nature video YouTube channel)
An autonomous drone 3D prints a structure from a cement-like material (Credit: nature video YouTube channel)

A team of autonomous drones has worked together to 3D print structures out of a cement-like material.

The approach could be useful for on-site repairs or construction in difficult-to-access and dangerous locations, according to the system’s developers at Imperial College London and Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories of Materials Science and Technology.

Inspired by natural builders such as bees and wasps, the aerial additive manufacturing (Aerial-AM) system uses a fleet of drones working from a single blueprint. The fleet includes ‘BuilDrones’, which deposit materials during flight, and quality-controlling ‘ScanDrones’, which continually measure the BuilDrones’ output and inform their next steps.

Aerial-AM could be used for on-site construction after natural disasters, or in skyscrapers and remote infrastructure, the researchers said.

The work was led by Professor Mirko Kovac from Imperial and Empa. He said: “We’ve proved the concept that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab. This scalable solution could help construction and repair in difficult-to-reach areas, like tall buildings.”

The system includes both a 3D printing and a path planning framework, so the drones can adapt to variations in geometry as the build progresses. They are fully autonomous in flight, but a human controller can monitor progress and intervene if necessary, based on the information provided by the drones.

The proof-of-concept prints included a 2m cylinder consisting of 72 layers of a polyurethane-based foam material, and an 18cm cylinder consisting of 28 layers of a custom-designed structural cement-like material.

Throughout the build, the drones assessed the printed geometry in real time and adapted behaviour to ensure they met the build specifications, with manufacturing accuracy of 5mm.

“The technology offers future possibilities for building and repairing structures in unbounded, high or other hard-to-access locations,” a research announcement said.

“Next the researchers will work with construction companies to validate the solutions and provide repair and manufacturing capabilities. They believe the technology will provide significant cost savings and reduce access risks compared to traditional manual methods.”

While the system holds promise for construction in difficult and dangerous locations, flight duration will likely be limited by the weight of the construction material, which will increase demand on drones’ batteries. Professional Engineering contacted the team for more information about how much material the BuilDrones can carry.

Other researchers included Robert Stuart-Smith, Stefan Leutenegger, Vijay Pawar, Richard Ball, Chris Williams and Paul Shephard, and their research teams at UCL, University of Bath, University of Pennsylvania, Queen Mary University, and the University of Munich.

This work was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UKRI. The project was also supported by Industrial Partners Skanska, Ultimaker, Burohappold, and BRE.

The research was published in Nature.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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