Innovation

Scientists can now build structures with swarms of flying drones

Swarms of drones could be on a future Mars mission. (Image: Yusuf Furkan KAYA, Aerial Robotics Laboratory, Imperial College London/Empa)
Researchers in Switzerland and the UK have developed flying 3D printing robots that can build structures on the wing as bees and wasps do.

They say the technology could be used to erect or repair buildings in difficult spots like disaster zones or in the upper reaches of skyscrapers.

The drones cooperate to deposit layers of material guided by a digital design, adapting their movements as they go.

They are fully autonomous while flying but are monitored by a human controller.

  • See the drones in action:

“We’ve proved that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab,” said research leader Prof. Mirko Kovac. “Our solution is scalable and could help us to construct and repair buildings in difficult-to-reach areas in the future.”

The fleet consists of “BuilDrones”, which deposit materials during flight, and quality-controlling “ScanDrones” that measure their output and help control them.

Throughout the build, the drones assess the printed geometry and adapt their behaviour to meet the specifications to within five millimetres.

A BuilDrone and a ScanDrone built this 2m-high tower of fast-curing foam (University College London/BRE)

Researchers had the fleet build a 2m-high cylinder made up of 72 layers of a polyurethane-based foam, and an 18cm cylinder composed 28 layers of a bespoke cementitious material.

The team is drawn from Imperial College London and Empa, the Federal Laboratories of Materials Science and Technologym which is based in Dübendorf, near Zürich.

Co-investigators include Robert Stuart-Smith, Stefan Leutenegger, Vijay Pawar, Richard Ball, Chris Williams and Paul Shepherd, and their research teams at University College London, the University of Bath, the University of Pennsylvania, Queen Mary University of London, and the Technical University of Münich).

The project is supported by Swedish contractor Skanska and UK consulting engineer Buro Happold, as well as UK research organisation BRE.

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