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Fleet of bee-inspired drones can 3D print structures mid-flight

23 September 2022

Drawing inspiration from bees, researchers have developed 3D printers that can build and repair structures whilst flying.

The technology could ultimately be used for manufacturing and building in difficult-to-access or dangerous locations, such as tall buildings, or help with post-disaster relief construction, say the researchers at Imperial College London and Empa, who publish their work in Nature.

3D printing is gaining momentum in the construction industry. Both on-site and in the factory, static and mobile robots print materials for use in construction projects, such as steel and concrete structures.

This new approach to 3D printing uses flying robots, known as drones, that use collective building methods inspired by natural builders like bees and wasps.

The drones in the fleet, known collectively as Aerial Additive Manufacturing (Aerial-AM), work co-operatively from a single blueprint, adapting their techniques as they go. They are fully autonomous while flying but are monitored by a human controller who checks progress and intervenes if necessary, based on the information provided by the drones.

Lead author Mirko Kovac, Professor at Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics and Head of Empa’s Materials and Technology Center of Robotics, said: “We’ve proved that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab. Our solution is scalable and could help us to construct and repair building[s] in difficult-to-reach areas in the future.”

BuilDrones (R) 3D print their material during flight, and ScanDrones (L) continuously measure their output for quality control.

Printing 3D geometries 

Aerial-AM uses both a 3D printing and path-planning framework to help the drones adapt to variations in the geometry of the structure as a build progresses. The fleet consists of BuilDrones, which deposit materials during flight, and quality-controlling ScanDrones that continually measure the BuilDrones’ output and inform their next manufacturing steps.

To test the concept, the researchers developed four bespoke cementitious mixtures for the drones to build with.

Throughout the build, the drones assessed the printed geometry in real time and adapted their behaviour to ensure they met the build specifications, with a manufacturing accuracy of 5mm.

The proof-of-concept prints included a 2.05m high cylinder (72 layers) with a polyurethane-based foam material, and an 18cm high cylinder (28 layers) with a custom-designed structural cementitious material.

The technology offers future possibilities for building and repairing structures in tall or other hard-to-access locations. Next, the researchers will work with construction companies to validate the solutions and provide repair and manufacturing capabilities.

Professor Kovac said: “We believe our fleet of drones could help reduce the costs and risks of construction in the future, compared to traditional manual methods.”

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