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)