London – A 3D printing drone that can build and repair structures as it flies has been developed by engineers at Imperial College’s department of aeronautics. The materials it uses include a polyurethane-based foam.
The flying 3D printers were inspired by bees and wasps, which are natural builders. They speculate that the devices might be useful for manufacturing and building in locations that are difficult to access or dangerous, such as tall buildings. They might also have applications in disaster relief construction.
The drones work co-operatively from a single blueprint, adapting their techniques as they go. Although they are fully autonomous while they are flying, a human controller checks their progress, and can intervene if required. BuilDrones deposit materials during flight, and ScanDrones continually monitor their output and inform their next manufacturing steps.
The Imperial team collaborated with a group from Bath’s department of architecture and civil engineering, who created appropriate construction materials. ‘We have developed new cutting-edge materials which are optimised for the unique properties required for aerial additive manufacturing, such as being low-viscosity, light-weight and quick-setting,’ said Bath team leader Richard Ball.
Proof-of-concept prints included a 2.05m tall 72-layer cylinder using a polyurethane-based foam material. Another cylinder, 18cm high, was made with a custom-designed structural cement-like material.
‘We’ve proved that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab,’ said Imperial’s Mirko Kovac, the lead investigator. ‘Our solution is scalable, and could help us to construct and repair building in difficult-to-reach areas in the future.’
The work has been published in the journal Nature.