Home TechnologyGadgets Bug-Like Flying 3D Printers Are A Powerful New Tool

Bug-Like Flying 3D Printers Are A Powerful New Tool

by George Mensah

3D printing and additive manufacturing appear to be 21st-century goldmines, having recently made waves in everything from jewelry and automotive manufacturing to construction. Who would have thought that 3D printing could be combined with two other emerging technologies — drones and artificial intelligence — to create something truly remarkable?

A team of researchers from The University of Bath, led by Imperial College London, published a paper in the journal “Nature” detailing an intriguing new construction tool: autonomous drones that work like insects to repair and potentially build entire structures. The manufacturing method was dubbed aerial additive manufacturing, or Aerial-AM for short by the researchers.

The drones operate on the same principle as extrusion 3D printers, with a print head that sits vertically over the workspace, depositing a stream of quick-setting material in layers on a surface. The print head moves to create the desired shape as the extrusion occurs. Layers are added as needed to create the finished product. We’ve seen large machines deposit concrete to print small habitats; in the case of this new innovation, the researchers developed their own test materials that are cement-like but light enough to be carried around by a drone.

Aerial-AM flying 3D printers collaborate like insects to repair buildings

3D printing is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to these flying, insect-inspired drones. The researchers created two types of drones with the intention of using them in fleets (like insects) to perform repairs or construction work. On the one hand, there are BuilDrones, which are drones that are assigned the difficult task of laying down material.

ScanDrones, which use 3D scanners to perform quality control and oversight, have joined them. The latter type of drone monitors the performance and overall structure of the BuilDrones to ensure that it meets manufacturing specifications. The information gathered by the ScanDrones from their intermittent scans is used to inform the next steps in the building process and to provide instructions to the BuilDrones. Using this system, the researchers were able to reduce printing accuracy to 5 millimeters (0.2 inch).


Throughout the development process, the researchers printed with a variety of materials, including a cement-like mixture that could be stored on the drone for longer periods of time and dried quickly once deposited. With ScanDrones monitoring the construction, the researchers will be able to test more unpredictable materials, such as expanding polyurethane foam. The researchers hope that the new technology will enable rapid construction during disaster relief and structure repairs in difficult-to-reach and dangerous-to-build-in locations. The technology could also be used to replace large structures that are commonly used to print other structures such as houses.

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