Printing cement and foam, one layer at a time, through drones is a real possibility. This method has the potential to revolutionise the building industry and disaster relief efforts.
Large 3D-printed buildings made of foam or cement can be created by drones working in tandem. The studies pave the way for a future in which swarms of drones could assist in the construction of exceptionally tall or complex buildings and other structures such as bridges without the need for scaffolding or large construction equipment.
Theoretically, Robert Stuart-Smith from the University of Pennsylvania explains, “We're talking about the ability to construct something of infinite size.” Such designs would only be limited by structural engineering limits and logistical considerations pertaining to drone flight.
The design of the drone swarm was inspired by insects such as wasps and termites. The project's leader, Mirko Kovac of Imperial College London, explains, “In nature, if you want to construct something very enormous, it's common for several creatures to collaborate.”
Kovac and Stuart-Smith, along with their coworkers, demonstrated how many drones could work together to construct a 2-meter-tall cylinder of insulating foam and a 0.18-meter-tall cylinder of special cement. First, one of two builder drones flew in a circle while squirting out a line of the foam or cement that hardens quickly, layer by layer constructing the structures.
After each layer was printed, a third drone equipped with a depth-sensing camera captured a 3D map of the ongoing operation, allowing the collaborative drone team to modify construction processes as necessary.
Each drone may operate for up to 10 minutes before requiring a reload of building components or a battery replacement.
Additional testing and simulations indicated how as many as fifteen drones might coordinate flight patterns and construct a dome in concert. The drones can autonomously decide where to fly and how to deposit building materials using AI, but they still require human supervision.
These 3D-printing drones could assist with post-disaster rehabilitation in remote places, as well as perilous tasks like restoring the concrete sarcophagus at the Chernobyl nuclear power station.
According to Vijay Pawar of University College London, the next major step is to move drone construction outdoors. This includes devising an effective method for recharging the drones and loading them with new building materials, as well as establishing communication networks to manage huge numbers of drones safely.
Masoud Gheisari, a professor at the University of Florida who was not involved with the study, believes the concept of builder drones makes logical. “I believe this research fully demonstrates that it is no longer science fiction,” he argues.