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Ariel Drones Inspired by Bees Could 3D-Print Structures in Remote and Dangerous Locations


Building or restoring structures in hard-to-reach areas is challenging; bringing in cranes, scaffolding, and other equipment is difficult. With this in mind, scientists are developing a system inspired by honeybees that uses flying 3D-printing drones to get the job done, even in remote and dangerous locations. Indeed, the future you see in the movies is at our doorstep.

Aerial Additive Manufacturing: Flying 3-D Printing Technology

The technology, called Aerial Additive Manufacturing (Aerial-AM), is being created by engineers from Imperial College London and the Empa institute in Switzerland. It comprises two different kinds of autonomous, intercommunicating quadcopter drones. Compared to traditional methods, they believe the technology will reduce risks in the construction industry and provide significant cost savings.

“We’ve proved that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab. Our solution is scalable and could help us to construct and repair building in difficult-to-reach areas in the future,” said lead author Professor Mirko Kovac of Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics and Empa’s Materials and Technology Center of Robotics. “We believe our fleet of drones could help reduce the costs and risks of construction in the future, compared to traditional manual methods.”

Part of the inspiration for the drones came from the collective building methods of insects to create large structures. “We’re talking about being able to build something of limitless size, theoretically speaking,” said Robert Stuart-Smith, an autonomous manufacturing researcher at University College London and the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the study.

The biomimetic system uses ScanDrones to monitor the process and BuilDrones to deposit materials.

BuilDrones

BuilDrones collectively construct the structure using a shared digital blueprint by extruding consecutive layers of material, like wet concrete, through a nozzle on their bottom. This nozzle can move laterally with the drone to compensate for any unintentional drifting on the part of the drone.

The BuilDrone's print nozzle.
The BuilDrone’s print nozzle. (Credit: Imperial College London)

ScanDrones

ScanDrones are the second type of drone. These keep an eye on the printing process and assess the structure’s shape as it is constructed. They provide the BuilDrones guidance on how to proceed, follow the blueprint, and create the desired finished product based on their observations.

The system’s manufacturing precision is currently plus or minus 5 millimeters. Although it is programmed to work independently, a human operator is kept informed so that, if necessary, they can step in and take manual control.

Aerial-AM Trial Run

So far, Aerial-AM has been used to construct proof-of-concept prints, including a 72-layer, 6.7-ft-tall (2.05-m) cylinder out of expanding polyurethane-based foam material and a 28-layer, 7-in (18-cm) cylinder out of a custom cement-like substance, in small-scale testing.

Ariel Drones Inspired by Bees Could 3D-Print Structures
(Credit: University College London/BRE)

Mirko Kovac, the project’s leader from Empa’s Materials and Technology Center of Robotics and Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics, stated:

“We have 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.”

While the 3D printing drones do fly autonomously, they are still monitored by a human controller who checks the progress of the work and can intervene, if necessary, based on information from the 3D printer drones.

It is hoped that 3D printer drones and mobile robots could one day be used to support post-disaster relief construction and remote construction projects.

The following research step includes working with construction companies to validate the solutions and provide repair and manufacturing capabilities. “At Penn, we are currently developing building design solutions that leverage this construction approach as we continue to collaborate with our colleagues in London and Switzerland, and in dialogue with industrial partners who are interested in furthering the capabilities of this research,” said Stuart-Smith.

The project’s researchers include Robert Stuart-Smith, Stefan Leutenegger, Vijay Pawar, Richard Ball, Chris Williams, and Paul Shepherd, and their research teams at UCL, Bath University, University of Pennsylvania, Queen Mary University of London, Technical University of Munich (TUM).

Aerial additive manufacturing with multiple autonomous robots was published in Nature on September 21, 2022. Meanwhile, the following video shows the bee-inspired drones in action.



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