Scientists to develop flying robots that can print buildings in disaster zones

UK researchers have been given more than $3m to try and develop robots that can swarm into disaster zones and print emergency shelters.

Universities and companies including BuroHappold and Dyson have four years to combine a suite of technologies – including autonomous drones, miniaturised 3D printing and artificial "swarm intelligence" – that would allow the robots to build life-saving structures in places that are too dangerous or difficult for construction teams to get to.

Once the site has been identified where shelters would be needed, then we can create the virtual model on the computer offsite, away in a safe zone, then send the drones with those materials on board to, in swarms, construct those types of shelters– Dr. Mirko Kovac, Imperial College London

The concept sees swarms of drones scanning and modelling the landscape and using building information modelling (BIM) systems to print structures on the spot from scratch.

The researchers say that the world’s first "Aerial Additive Building Manufacturing System" (Aerial ABM) could even revolutionise conventional construction by miniaturising 3D print capability, giving it autonomy, and putting it in the air.

"In the first instance the drones would fly to the site and just observe what is happening," explained Dr. Mirko Kovac, research leader and director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College London in a podcast this week.

"Once the site has been identified where for example shelters would be needed, then we can create the virtual model on the computer offsite, away in a safe zone, then send the drones with those materials on board to, in swarms, construct those types of shelters."

Kovac said the geometries of the buildings would most likely be domes or other self-supporting types of structures.

Swarms working together

The four-year project, which has received a $3.3m (£2.3m) grant from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, involves researchers from Imperial College, the University of Bath and University College London.

Industry partners include the innovative vacuum cleaner maker Dyson, engineering consultancy BuroHappold, contractor Skanska, Dutch 3D print firm Ultimaker, and the UK’s BRE Trust.

In a research brief, Imperial College London said it had already flown drones that can extrude 3D print material in the air, and had also simulated swarms of drones planning and making things autonomously and collaboratively.

With the grant, the team will now develop a real Aerial ABM system that will build walls and a freeform pavilion building. That will require breakthroughs in hardware, autonomy, materials science and structural engineering.

As well as being used in disasters, the team believes that Aerial ABM systems could eventually be used to cut time and cost in normal construction scenarios – by getting flying printers to repair or build where it would be awkward and expensive to put humans and equipment.

Kovac also believes Aerial ABM holds an important key to the notion of smart cities.

"If you think of the future smart city the question arises, what is smart about it?" Kovac said.

"One aspect of this smartness in the city is the sensing, the distributed knowledge, information, intelligence. But it is also the reaction to that information. So in that context the drones can help to gather the information, to sense the environment, inspect structures, inspect buildings, for example, and then be used to repair or maintain those buildings, and eventually also to construct those buildings."

Photograph: Drones are used for complex tasks today, but could they revolutionise construction by miniaturising 3D print capability, giving it autonomy, and putting it in the air? (Heidi Jong Baw/Getty)

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  1. As an experienced practitioner in sheltering and construction in disasters I have many questions that relate to this piece of research, here are a few;
    1. How will the research reflect on current humanitarian principles and practice?
    2. How will these drones communicate with the affected people to find out their needs?
    3. Who will agree the design and locations of shelter sites?
    4. How will the affected populations be involved in the process?
    5. Who will select beneficiaries and agree the distribution?
    6. Have you calculated how many shelters you might need to construct in a disaster situation and worked out the logistics and time frame of the supply chain?
    7. Where is the humanitarian experience in the research team?
    8. Who will control all these drones flying around the disaster zone?
    9. How much will each shelter cost, is it affordable in a humanitarian context?
    10. How will the shelter be incorporated into the future reconstruction activities of the affected community? Will the materials be compatible with reconstruction materials?
    11. How many times have domes/igloos been suggested as a shelter solution to disaster shelter and how many times have they actually been used?

    In my experience the process of sheltering is a people led process not a technological activity. In any disaster it is absolutely critical for the affected people to be fully involved in the relief and recovery process to help them create sustainable and resilient solutions for their future, this piece of research needs to demonstrate how the proposed solutions can achieve this.

  2. Now that is cool!

  3. I would have thought the drones would be better suited to delivering buildings or shelters to the zones. Time is an essential component when the need arises in disaster zones and the luxury of scanning sites is just not viable in my opinion.

  4. This is a cool and innovative way forward and initially to get the bare essentials to a disaster zone is far quicker than by road. Fly in pods anywhere accessible other than blocked roads etc. Then build on the ‘Drone Foundations’ Yes humanitarian support is vital and drones don’t think yet and are guided but this is a step in the right direction. Lets face it, one more step toward robots. Scary too!!
    Extraordinary visions. Keep going drone developers. All the research questions CAN be answered. Lets stay optimistic.
    LOL I’ve just ticked ‘I’m not a Robot’

  5. Well, this is truly building Castles in Air !

  6. I’m not entirely convinced that in its current form this idea would provide a practical solution for disaster relief. however; does it offer a glimpse of the future for construction in general?
    We already have construction components being created using 3D printing, even whole bridges and (admittedly simple) concrete buildings. Does this hint at a future where BIM is taken to its ultimate conclusion- designed in the cloud & built by drones.

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