Bit by bit, drones can print structures made of foam and cement. The technique could transform future construction sites and post-disaster reconstruction
Drones working together can create large 3D-printed structures made of foam or cement. The experiments are paving the way for a future where swarms of drones could help construct extremely tall or intricate buildings and other structures like bridges without the need for support scaffolding or large construction machinery.
“We’re talking about being able to build something of limitless size, theoretically speaking,” says Robert Stuart-Smith at the University of Pennsylvania. Such creations would only be restricted by structural engineering constraints and factors like drone flight logistics.
The drone swarm construction takes inspiration from animals such as wasps and termites. “If you want to build something very large, typically in nature what happens is that many animals work together,” says Mirko Kovac at Imperial College London, who led the project.
Kovac and Stuart-Smith together with their colleagues showed how several drones could cooperatively build a 2-metre-tall cylinder made of insulation foam and a 0.18-metre-tall cylinder made of special cement. First, one of two builder drones flew around in a circle while squirting out a line of the quick-hardening foam or cement, building up the structures one layer at a time.
After each layer was printed, a third drone used a depth-sensing camera to capture a 3D map of the work in progress and allow the cooperative drone team to adjust construction steps as needed.
Each of the drones can operate for up to 10 minutes before needing to reload building materials and sometimes get a fresh battery.
Additional testing and simulations demonstrated how up to 15 drones could coordinate flight paths and work together to build a dome. The drones can make their own AI-guided decisions about where to fly and how to deposit building materials, but still require human supervision.
These 3D-printing drones could help with post-disaster reconstruction in remote areas, or even work on dangerous projects such as repairing the concrete sarcophagus at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
A next big step involves moving the drone construction outdoors, says Vijay Pawar at University College London. That requires figuring out an efficient way to recharge the drones and load them up with fresh building materials, along with setting up the communication networks to safely supervise large numbers of drones.
The construction industry has already been using drones for inspection, but the concept of builder drones makes sense, says Masoud Gheisari at the University of Florida, who was not involved in the study. “I think this paper perfectly shows that it’s not science fiction anymore,” he says.
Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04988-4
More on these topics: