Animal-inspired flying robots are going to 3D build mid-flight

The drones will help the construction industry in hard-to-reach and dangerous places.
Nergis Firtina
Animal mimicing drone
Animal mimicing drone

Imperial College of London  

Consider the drone bees. These bees, which probably gave their name to today's drones, are also may have inspired by their physical features. Let's learn how.

Researchers from Imperial College London and Empa have created a fleet of bee-inspired flying drone printers for 3D printing buildings.

The primary purpose of the research is to help the construction industry in hard-to-reach and dangerous places such as high-rise buildings or skyscrapers.

The results of the research have been published today in Nature.

Animal-inspired flying robots are going to 3D build mid-flight
Bee-inspired 3D printing drone.

The fleet's drones, collectively known as Aerial Additive Manufacturing (Aerial-AM), collaborate using a single blueprint and modify their methods. While in flight, they are entirely autonomous, but a human controller keeps an eye on them and intervenes if necessary, depending on the data the drones provide.

“We’ve proved that drones can work autonomously and in tandem to construct and repair buildings, at least in the lab," said Lead author Professor Kovac, of Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics and Empa’s Materials and Technology Center of Robotics.

"Our solution is scalable and could help us to construct and repair buildings in difficult-to-reach areas in the future.”

A well-organized process

As the project advances, the project uses both 3D printing and a path-planning framework to assist the drones in adjusting to changes in the structure's geometry.

The fleet, which stores supplies for the duration of the flight, consists of ScanDrones that continuously measure BuildDrones' output and report future steps. Besides, the researchers produced cement compositions for the drones to construct in order to test the 3D printing drones.

In addition, the proof-of-concept prints include 6.7 feet (2.05 m) high cylinder - 72 layers - with a polyurethane-based foam material and an 18-centimeter high cylinder - 28 layers - with a custom-designed structural cementitious material.

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“We believe our fleet of drones could help reduce the costs and risks of construction in the future, compared to traditional manual methods,” also stated Professor Kovac.

Funded by many important foundations

Some crucial foundations and universities worldwide are among the project's supporters.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (part of UKRI), the Royal Society, the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Programme, the Royal Thai Government Scholarship, and a University of Bath Research Scholarship, this project is also supported by Industrial Partners Skanska, Ultimaker, Buro Happold, and BRE.


Additive manufacturing methods using static and mobile robots are being developed for both on-site construction and off-site prefabrication. Here we introduce a method of additive manufacturing, referred to as aerial additive manufacturing (Aerial-AM), that utilizes a team of aerial robots inspired by natural builders11 such as wasps who use collective building methods. We present a scalable multi-robot three-dimensional (3D) printing and path-planning framework that enables robot tasks and population size to be adapted to variations in print geometry throughout a building mission. The multi-robot manufacturing framework allows for autonomous three-dimensional printing under human supervision, real-time assessment of printed geometry, and robot behavioral adaptation. To validate autonomous Aerial-AM based on the framework, we develop BuilDrones for depositing materials during flight and ScanDrones for measuring the print quality and integrate a generic real-time model-predictive-control scheme with the Aerial-AM robots. In addition, we integrate a dynamically self-aligning delta manipulator with the BuilDrone to further improve the manufacturing accuracy to five millimeters for printing geometry with precise trajectory requirements and develop for cementitious–polymeric composite mixtures suitable for continuous material deposition. We demonstrate proof-of-concept prints including a cylinder 2.05 meters high consisting of 72 layers of a rapid-curing insulation foam material and a cylinder 0.18 meters high consisting of 28 layers of structural pseudoplastic cementitious material, a light-trail virtual print of a dome-like geometry, and multi-robot simulations. Aerial-AM allows manufacturing in-flight and offers future possibilities for building in unbounded, at-height, or hard-to-access locations.

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