Drones that use 3D printing for construction and repair

A team of researchers from Imperial College London and Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories of Materials Science and Technology, has developed a special kind of drone who use collective construction methods and are able to construct and repair buildings. These so-called BuilDrones use 3D printing during flight and were inspired by the way bees and wasps work in swarms in nature. The new system called Aerial Additive Manufacturing (Aerial-AM) uses multiple drones and once, which will work together in a fleet from a single plane.

In recent years, additive manufacturing has become increasingly popular in the construction sector. Ever since the first 3D printed houses were built just a few years ago, the number of new projects involving AM technologies has steadily increased. As more and more companies discover the benefits of AM, the technologies are also evolving rapidly as scientists and engineers seek to maximize the technology’s potential. A recent example of this is an impressive new approach to 3D printing, which was developed in a collaborative project between Iimperial College London and Empa. The team created special drones (BuilDrones), which are able to work autonomously and build or repair houses, replacing human labor, thus saving time, costs and minimizing the risk of work-related injuries.

In the future, drones may also be used for construction in space (photo credits: Yusuf Furkan KAYA, Aerial Robotics Laboratory, Imperial College London / Empa)

How Aerial-AM and buildingDrones work

The newly developed drones consist of two different types of flying robots, BuildDrones and ScanDrones. BuilDrones deposit the construction materials in flight, whereas ScanDrones are able to monitor and measure the output of the BuilDrones and inform their next manufacturing step. As previously mentioned, the operation of drones can best be compared to bees or wasps building a beehive or nest. Although the drones operate autonomously in flight, they are supervised by a human controller who is able to monitor their movements and intervene if necessary to ensure the quality of construction. In addition, the Aerial-AM technology uses a 3D printing and path planning framework that allows the drones to adapt to the changing geometry of the structure as construction progresses.

To test the drones, the team developed four cement-like mixtures to work with. The end result showed that the drones were able to assess the printed geometry in real time and adapt their behavior while printing with an accuracy of five millimeters. Professor Mirko Kovac of Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics and Empa’s Materials and Technology Center of Robotics, who led the project, explained: “We have proven the concept that drones can work independently and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab. This scalable solution can help with construction and repair in hard-to-reach areas, such as tall buildings. We believe that our fleet of drones can help reduce the costs and risks of construction in the future compared to traditional manual methods.”

Apart from the already mentioned cost and time savings, the technology would also enable building construction and repair in high or hard-to-reach places, revolutionizing the way buildings are constructed today. To find out more about the drones, you can read the original press release HERE.

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*Cover images: Imperial College London

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