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£2.3m grant for Skanska-backed aerial 3D printing drones

23 February 2016

Drones with 3D print capability, giving it autonomy, and putting it in the air? (Heidi Jong Baw/Getty)

UK researchers at three universities have been given more than £3.4m to develop robots that can swarm into disaster zones and print emergency shelters, in a technique called “Aerial Additive Building Manufacturing” (Aerial ABM). 

The academics from Imperial College, the University of Bath and Universty College London are being joined by Skanska, BuroHappold, BRE and Dyson in a four-year project called “Aerial Additive Building Manufacturing: Distributed Unammed Aerial Systems for in-situ manufactuirng of the built environment”.

The project has won £2.3m funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Reearch Council as well as additional funding from the industry partners.

It combines a suite of technologies – including autonomous drones, miniaturised 3D printing and artificial “swarm intelligence” – to build life-saving structures in places that are too dangerous or difficult for construction teams to get to.

The drones would scan and model the landscape and use BIM systems to print structures on the spot.

"Once the site has been identified where shelters would be needed, then we can create the virtual model on the computer offsite, away in a safe zone, then send the drones with those materials on board to, in swarms, construct those types of shelters."

Dr Mirko Kovac, Imperial College London

The researchers say that the world’s first Aerial ABM could even revolutionise conventional construction by miniaturising 3D print capability, giving it autonomy, and putting it in the air.

“In the first instance the drones would fly to the site and just observe what is happening,” explained Dr Mirko Kovac, research leader and director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College London in a podcast this week.

“Once the site has been identified where for example shelters would be needed, then we can create the virtual model on the computer offsite, away in a safe zone, then send the drones with those materials on board to, in swarms, construct those types of shelters.”

Kovac said the geometries of the buildings would most likely be domes or other self-supporting types of structures.

In a research brief, Imperial College London said it had already flown drones that can extrude 3D print material in the air, and had also simulated swarms of drones planning and making things autonomously and collaboratively.

With the grant, the team will now develop a real Aerial ABM system that will build walls and a freeform pavilion building. That will require breakthroughs in hardware, autonomy, materials science and structural engineering.

As well as being used in disasters, the team believes that Aerial ABM systems could eventually be used to cut time and cost in normal construction scenarios – by getting flying printers to repair or build where it would be awkward and expensive to put humans and equipment.

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