A swarm of drones to “print” buildings in 3D

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Have you ever marveled at the architectural prowess of bees? Some scientists too. A team from the University of Pennsylvania has designed a swarm of drones inspired by these little creatures. It is capable of printing cement or foam structures in 3D.

The objective of this incredible project is to facilitate the construction of buildings in areas of difficult access. “ This is exciting research that could affect how we build in hard-to-reach or dangerous high-rise areas, such as high-rise buildings and bridges. Stuart-Smith, one of the researchers who worked on this project, said in a university news release. The latest advances have been published in the magazine Nature.

Scientists were inspired by insects that apply collective construction methods, such as wasps, bees and termites… These little builders are robotic this time. To test their creation, the researchers had the swarm ‘print’ a two-meter-high cylinder of insulating foam, as well as a 0.18-meter cylinder made of a special cement. First, one of the two construction drones flew in circles projecting the material, building the structures layer by layer, like a 3D printer.

After printing the layers, a drone equipped with a depth-sensing camera recorded a 3D map of the work in progress. The rest of the drone team then used this mapping to adjust the remaining construction stages, based on the specific needs of the structure. The machines are endowed with an autonomy of action based on a artificial intelligence. However, human supervision is still necessary. Each drone is capable of running for ten minutes before needing to recharge with materials. Some of these “pauses” also serve to renew the battery.

Drones to intervene in irradiated areas

Although the construction was not done physically, the simulations also demonstrated how a team of 15 drones could work together to make a dome-shaped structure. Scientists are already imagining many uses for their flying workers. The construction of many buildings could be facilitated, as these diagrams, included in the scientific publication, suggest.

types of construction swarm drones
Additive manufacturing in construction. Comparison of different additive manufacturing robot platforms, with a red to blue gradient indicating improvements in scale, flexibility, and access. Established platforms have limitations regarding the scale of the robotic platform: the maximum build envelope, the ability to manufacture in parallel, and site access capabilities. Aerial additive manufacturing (inner dotted box) enables parallel manufacturing with an unlimited build envelope in hard-to-reach places. © Ketao Zhang et al.

Beyond that, drones could help rebuild buildings after natural disasters, or even work on high-risk projects for humans, like repairing the concrete sarcophagus at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. However, there are still many steps to take before reaching this point. To continue with the development of their project, the researchers now intend to work hand in hand with construction companies. Objective: to validate the solutions developed and provide repair and manufacturing capabilities “, specifies the press release.

A key focus will be getting drones to operate outdoors. In fact, all the tests have so far been carried out inside a building. Several challenges will have to be faced: finding a solution to efficiently recharge the drones with electricity, materials, and setting up a communication network capable of supervising a large number of drones without interference…

System presentation video published by Nature :

Font : Nature

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