Researchers from Imperial College London have taken the first step towards making this a reality with their work on a drone that is able to ‘3D print’ while it is in flight.
Talib Alhinai, who is behind the work, has developed a drone that is able to apply and build up layers of expanding foam during its flight. The foam is mixed onboard the quadcopter while it is in the air.
“Right now there are robotic arms that can do bricklaying,” said Alhiana, while speaking to Factor.
“So what if a flying robot comes in and lays a brick, and then one of these robots comes in and lays the mortar – whether it is cement or the foam material.
Alhinai said their work is at an early stage, but could ultimately lead to drones that are able to play a large part in the construction process.
Current limitations exist around the flight time and load weight that a drone is able to carry.
There are also issues surrounding the accuracy of the drone’s printing ability when it is placed into real-life situations.
Setting aside technical issues such the payload that a drone can carry, which will improve as the technology does, the researchers have already tested drones that are able to build walls.
“We did a brick and mortar approach where we had foam bricks and we used the adhesive as mortar to build up a prototype brick wall to show the properties of this foam,” Alhinai said.
“Ultimately we envisage these robots being used in a construction aspect, so you could send them to pick up objects or to place objects.
“Obviously, that is still 15 or 20 years down the line.”
The biggest hurdles that need to be flown over in that time involve the accuracy that a drone can print at and re-filling the drones, as they are only able to carry 50ml of material at present.
Ultimately we envisage having a swarm of robots just living on a wind farm or an oil pipeline
Alhiana said that at present they are able to print to an accuracy of around 2-3cms, although when subjected to non-laboratory conditions these changes to 10-15cms. Factors can include the wind and natural conditions.
A research paper on their work said: “The major limitation of this construction technique is the limited payload of flying robots.
Improved flight stability will allow more accurate deposition to facilitate printing of structures at tighter tolerances.
“Future work could therefore focus on multi-vehicle coordination to enable the construction of larger structures and automating the raw component refilling process to shorten intervals between successive prints.”
But traditional building isn’t the only potential use for drones that are able to lay materials down.
At the moment the Imperial researchers have been using builders’ foam for their tests as it is lightweight, fitting in with the drone’s carrying ability, and can expand up to 25 times its size.
They have been able to build small structures to bridge gaps and see there being other uses as their research matures – including the use of different materials.
“Future repair of structures – for oil pipelines you could use this robot to deposit anti-corrosion material on the pipelines and just go and do the rounds,” Alhiana explained.
“Ultimately we envisage having a swarm of robots just living on a wind farm or an oil pipeline and carry out all the necessary repair or maintenance work by themselves.”
Using drones for construction isn’t the only way that Imperial College is trying to further the uses of flying robots.
The research centre at the university recently was given an extra £1.25m funding to boost its work, which is also, among other applications, looking at using drones for delivery.
Their research and inspiration largely comes from looking at nature and translating the way that animals move into a way that can be mimicked by technology, a practice known as biomimicry.
The director of the laboratory, Dr Mirko Kovac, said: “Ultimately, we are aiming to develop flying robots that could improve the way companies do business, save lives and help to protect our environment.
Kovac also spoke about his lab’s work at the Re.Work Future of Robotics Forum, a full video of his talk is below.
Images one and two courtesy of Imperial College London