Drones working in tandem can build large 3D-printed structures out of foam or cement.
The experiments pave the way for a future in which swarms of drones can assist in the construction of extremely tall or intricate buildings, as well as other structures such as 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 demonstrated how several drones could work together to 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 in a circle while squirting out a line of the quick-hardening foam or cement, layer by layer, to construct the structures.
Following the printing of each layer, a third drone used a depth-sensing camera to capture a 3D map of the work in progress, allowing the collaborative drone team to adjust construction steps as needed.
Each of the drones can operate for up to 10 minutes before requiring reloading building materials and, on occasion, a new battery.
Additional testing and simulations showed that up to 15 drones could coordinate flight paths and collaborate to build a dome.
The drones can make their own AI-guided decisions about where to fly and how to deposit building materials, but they still need to be supervised by humans.
These 3D-printing drones could aid in disaster reconstruction in remote areas or even work on dangerous projects like repairing the concrete sarcophagus at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
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