Drones will 3D print our future homes and offices on the go

Drones will 3D print our future homes and offices on the go

University College London, Department of Computer Science, London.  Dr. Vijay M. Pawar & Robert Stuart-Smith, Autonomous Manufacturing Lab

University College London, Department of Computer Science, London. Dr. Vijay M. Pawar & Robert Stuart-Smith, Autonomous Manufacturing Lab

An international team of engineers has taken 3D printing to a whole new level by designing a fleet of drones that can build structures on the fly, unlocking new approaches to construction in hard-to-reach, unstable or otherwise inaccessible locations . These robots are the first of their kind to 3D print and hover at the same time, and in proof-of-concept research published on Wednesday in Natureresearchers showed that the drones were able to coordinate and build tall cylinders of polyurethane foam and a cement-like material.

“We’ve demonstrated the first robots ever to 3D-print in flight, and that’s a pretty amazing achievement,” Robert Stuart-Smith, an autonomous manufacturing researcher at University College London and the University of Pennsylvania, and a co-author of the study, told The Daily Beast. By working with swarms of tiny robots that can make decisions as they build, tomorrow’s architects will be able to change building designs midway through construction and tailor projects to fit a dynamic environment, he added.

The potential implications are countless. The new drones can provide new opportunities to construct buildings outside of the formal one-floor-by-floor approach. Or, after a natural disaster like an avalanche, drones could 3D print tools for a trapped survivor to free himself. They can also quickly build temporary shelters for displaced individuals and families. Since they are free-wheeling and do not need to be tethered, 3D printing drones can help when there is a power outage from a storm or other weather event, and make quick repairs to critical infrastructure (especially if there are obstacles preventing people from getting closer).



<div class=University College London, Department of Computer Science, London. Dr Vijay M. Pawar and Robert Stuart-Smith, Autonomous Manufacturing Lab

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University College London, Department of Computer Science, London. Dr. Vijay M. Pawar & Robert Stuart-Smith, Autonomous Manufacturing Lab

Taking inspiration from insects such as bees and wasps, as well as recent research into teams of mobile robots that can organize themselves, Stuart-Smith and his colleagues wanted to build a system of 3D-printing drones that could be built in places that are traditionally — and even state-of-the-art 3D-printed construction technologies — can’t reach. So-called additive manufacturing is currently limited by the size of the equipment; 3D printed structures cannot be wider than the printer’s base, and printers must maneuver around layers they have already deposited, creating time-consuming situations. In contrast, a flying 3D printer can deposit material beneath itself and move anywhere in space, allowing for structures with unlimited widths and complex geometries.

“These solutions can actually be very cost-effective, efficient and provide a whole new way of working that is otherwise quite prohibitive using conventional techniques,” University College London computer science researcher and study co-author Vijay Pawar told The Daily Beast.



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The new construction material designed specifically for the new construction drones.

University College London, Department of Computer Science, London. Dr Vijay M. Pawar and Robert Stuart-Smith, Autonomous Manufacturing Lab

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The new construction material designed specifically for the new construction drones.

University College London, Department of Computer Science, London. Dr Vijay M. Pawar and Robert Stuart-Smith, Autonomous Manufacturing Lab

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The new construction material designed specifically for the new construction drones.

University College London, Department of Computer Science, London. Dr. Vijay M. Pawar & Robert Stuart-Smith, Autonomous Manufacturing Lab

But creating the first flying and 3D printing robots came with a number of challenges. The researchers had to design a system that could deposit material and remain stable in flight. In addition, the robot must remain light enough to fly even when carrying the print material; building materials are intentionally heavy so that structures remain solid.

To get around the weight problem, the researchers used fast-setting polyurethane foam and then developed a lightweight version of cement that the robots could use. “Basically, we had to engineer a completely new material,” Stuart-Smith said.

The team of engineers tested the drones over several trials, each of which would be relevant to future applications in construction. First, they programmed a drone to build a nearly seven-foot cylindrical tower of foam (a second drone scanned its progress after each layer to chart the robot’s progress and confirm that the material was being deposited as planned). Next, a pair of drones built a seven-inch woven cylinder using the cement-like material (the end result looked like a cross between a wicker basket and a quicksand castle.) The researchers also simulated building cylinders and domes with groups of three or more drones, by use light beams instead of physical materials and take time-lapse photos of the results.

It took the drones 300 seconds per layer to construct the cement-like cylinder, or 2.3 hours minutes in total. Stuart-Smith said the robots will become faster and more efficient as the technology is refined, especially as testing begins outdoors and researchers can use larger, more powerful drones.

Rahul Pranat, a mechanical engineering researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who was not involved in the study, said the research represented advances for both 3D printing and robotics. “[Aerial robots] would remove roadblocks to many applications of 3D printing and go beyond the limits of current technology,” he told The Daily Beast.

Before a fleet of drones can be contracted to build the next skyscraper, however, researchers need to improve both the manufacturing and robotics sides of the technology, Pranat added. Standardization must also play a role, since companies that build swarms of drones code them in dozens of different programming languages.

The climate disaster era for global agriculture will be defined by drones

With continued development, swarms of drones “could provide an alternative means of supporting housing and critical infrastructure in remote locations” or locations rendered inaccessible by natural disasters and the effects of global warming, the authors wrote in the study.

But they can also play a role even closer to home: Construction that takes place only one or two stories above ground currently requires human crews and can put those workers in dangerous positions. Drones, on the other hand, would still allow for human oversight without the potential for fatalities, Stuart-Smith said.

All in all, a future construction site may no longer be littered with men and women in helmets and steel-toed boots baking under the hot sun to get the building finished piecemeal. Instead, it could just be a swarm of drones printing the whole thing in one go.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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