Drones Will 3D Print Our Future Homes and Offices on the Fly

An international team of engineers has taken 3D printing to a whole new level by designing a fleet of drones that can build structures while in flight.

These robots are the first of their kind to 3D print and hover simultaneously. Researchers showed that the drones were able to coordinate and build tall cylinders out of polyurethane foam material.

Working with swarms of small robots that can make decisions as they build, tomorrow’s architects will be able to change designs halfway through construction and tailor projects.

By contrast, a flying 3D printer can deposit material below itself and move anywhere in space, allowing for structures with unlimited widths and complex geometries.

These solutions are cost-effective, efficient, and provide a whole new way of working that otherwise is quite prohibitive using normal techniques, London computer science researcher Vijay Pawar says.

But creating the first flying and 3D-printing robots came with a slew of challenges. The researchers had to design a system that could deposit material and remain stable in flight

To bypass the weight issue, the researchers used rapidly hardening polyurethane foam and then developed a lightweight version of cement for the robots to use.

The team of engineers tested the drones out over several trials, each of which would be relevant to future applications in construction.

 Stuart-Smith said that the robots will get faster and more efficient as the technology is refined, particularly when testing begins outdoors and researchers can use larger, more powerful drones.

Rahul Pranat, a mechanical engineering researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who was not involved in the study, said that the research represented steps forward for both 3D printing and robotics. 

With continued development drones could provide an alternative means to support vital infrastructure on places made inaccessible due to natural disasters and the effects of global warming, 

Drones, on the other hand, would still allow for human supervision without the potential for fatal accidents, Stuart-Smith said.

All-in-all, a future construction site may no longer be dotted with men and women in hard hats and steel-toed boots baking under the hot sun to get a building done in a piecemeal fashion.