Feb 19, 2016 | By Alec

If you’re interested in both drone technology and 3D printing, you’ll probably remember the fantastic combination of the two by Dr. Mirko Kovac from Imperial College London. While we’ve seen 3D printed drones before, he actually created the world’s first drone 3D printer, capable of (crudely) 3D printing some material onto waste to make it transportable. Since that fascinating innovation, Kovac has been dreaming big, and recently received more than £3.4 million (or about $5 million USD) to further advance the development of aerial 3D printing robots. These will be perfect, he says, for 3D printing emergency shelters in regions struck by natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes.

Dr. Kovac leads a team of researchers at the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London, and acts as the Principal Investigator together with partners from the Dyson Robotics Lab at Imperial and other universities. They are being backed in this project by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and are also partnered with various construction, robotics and 3D printing specialists, including Ultimaker. And the goal is quite ambitious: to push forward the development of aerial construction robots equipped with 3D printing technology.

This fascinating concept is essentially the follow up to the first 3D printing drone, which acted more like a glue squirting machine than a 3D printer. This time around, they are planning to develop full-fledged 3D printing drones that essentially act as the miniature construction 3D printers we’ve seen before, but are capable of realizing high-enough quality structures on a significant scale to serve as temporary housing solutions. You can imagine a fleet of drones that, like a sort-of reverse swarm of piranhas, construct buildings at hard-to-reach construction sights. To our knowledge, it’s the only research project currently aimed at 3D printing from the skies.

And this is far more than just a gimmick, Dr. Kovac argues. According to statistics from the International Labour Organization, at least least 60,000 are killed annually on construction sites – that’s about one death every ten minutes. Automating some of the most hazardous parts of construction would definitely make sites far safer. Admittedly, this usually won’t require flying 3D printers – a robotic concrete 3D printer would do just fine.

However, Dr. Kovac is especially thinking about disaster areas that are hard to reach. Landslides, earthquakes, mudslides and flash floods somehow frequently happen in far-off locations, such as the earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015 and killed more than 8,000 people and heavily damaged numerous cities and villages throughout the Himalayas. These types of disasters create all sorts of physical obstacles for relief teams and construction workers who need to build temporary living conditions. “Drones would fly to the [emergency] site and just observe what is happening. Once the site has been identified, and where shelters would be needed, then we could create the virtual model on the computer offsite, in a safe zone away from the site,” explains Kovac.

The drones could then return to do the necessary 3D printing. This would greatly reduce the risk for emergency personnel while also helping the people in need as quickly as possible. Their whole work is to be coordinated by a so-called Building Information Management system (BIM), which is fed by the sensor data from scouting drones. The real challenge, however, will be in creating adequate 3D printer mounts for the drones, capable of delivering sufficient payload accurately. Coordinating a fleet of drones might also pose a challenge. The idea, however, is revolutionary.

What’s more, these drone 3D printers can also be used during the construction of tall buildings, simply to work on hard-to-reach places. It’s all part of what Kovac foresees as being ‘smart cities’. Drones will take over a lot of jobs, and simultaneously create more jobs, as they will need to be manufactured, operated, and maintained. While it all sounds very futuristic – and it remains to be seen if 3D printing can be reliably and accurately achieved by drones – it’s a concept that could truly change the construction and disaster relief industries if it works.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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