3D printing drones can build homes just like bees

Sarah Lever/Imperial College London/UCL/University of Bath/Cover Images

Researchers from Imperial College London and Empa have created a fleet of bee-inspired flying 3D printers for building and repairing structures in-flight.

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

The new approach to 3D printing uses flying robots that use collective building methods inspired by natural builders like bees and wasps. The drones in the fleet 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 their 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 buildings in difficult-to-reach areas in the future."

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.

The technology offers future possibilities for building and repairing structures in tall or other hard-to-access locations.