Researchers have announced their proof-of- concept success in testing a system using swarms of drones as flying 3D printers of materials in the construction and repair of buildings, inspired by the way bees and wasps assemble their nests.
Though fixed-location 3D printing is already being adapted for use in the construction industry, the drone swarm project gives that tech mobility by making it an elevated, adaptive part of the building activity. UAVs deployed operate autonomously following pre-planned work schedules as structures come together, but also have built-in capacities to adapt on their own in function of evolving geometries as construction progresses.
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If need be, human monitors can intervene to tweak previously scheduled work blueprints to correspond to actual states of buildings under construction, using data provided from the drone swarm itself to determine required alterations.
The project is being spearheaded by the Imperial College London and the Swiss Federal Laboratories of Materials Science and Technology, and assisted by engineering, architecture, and tech specialists from several international universities.
The newly minted proof-of-concept project – whose success was recently published in the review Nature – is generating considerable interest.
Known as Aerial Additive Manufacturing, use of 3D-printing drone swarms as construction assets could transform the way work is performed on tall buildings, potentially dangerous structures like bridges, or difficult-to-access sites.
In trials, researchers developed four compounds with qualities similar to cement that drone swarms printed and deposited during construction of structures. The process designated a group of “BuilDrones” to carry out the application of those substances, and “ScanDrones” that ensured quality control, tracked progress, and informed their laboring peers of what work needed to be performed next.
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Trials produced a 2.05-meter cylinder comprised of 72 layers using a polyurethane-based foam material, and an 18-centimeter cylinder of 28 layers made of a custom-designed structural cement simile. Self-adjusting printing heads compensated for any slight drifting as drones in the swarm took their turns in construction of the spires, enabling an accuracy of within 5 millimeters.
Those structures may be a far cry from the skyscrapers, apartment buildings, and infrastructure whose construction such drone swarms could revolutionize as the concept progresses, but researchers say their success on a smaller scale is already a major step toward those larger objectives.
“We’ve proved the concept that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab,” said swarm project lead researcher Mirko Kovac. “This scalable solution could help construction and repair in difficult-to-reach areas, like tall buildings.”