Flying drone meets 3D printer, buzzwords hit critical mass

A new flying drone has been equipped with materials that harden to form a sticky foam, giving it potential applications in hard-to-reach areas.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
2 min read

Imperial College of London

It's almost like someone played buzzword bingo in the creation of the flying 3D printer drone, but it could have some pretty cool applications in the real world. Created by a team led by Dr Mirko Kovac of the Imperial College of London's Department of Aeronautics, it's inspired by birds.

More specifically, it's inspired by a bird called the swiftlet, which uses saliva to build its nests. The saliva, once in place, hardens, becoming a safe home for the birds.

Dr Kovac's system, mounted on a quad- or hexacopter, works in a similar fashion. Rather than the traditional plastic extruder, the "printer" consists of cartridges containing two separate chemicals. When these are mixed together by the printing module, which sprays them at the target, they form a polyurethane foam.

"Swiftlets are like beautiful flying factories that can navigate often treacherous, dark environments to find a suitable place to build nests," DrKovacs said. "Amazingly, they carry inside of them all the materials they need to build their own home. We have taken these traits and adapted them in robotics. Robots that mimic these birds could have enormous benefits, helping humans in construction and in hazardous situations."

At the moment, it needs to be in communication with a laptop, which processes the information sent via the drone's GPS and 16 infrared cameras, and then sends commands back to the drone. However, the team believes that the drone, when scaled up, could carry on board its own high-speed cameras and 3D depth sensors in order to process that information in real-time.

The idea is that the robots could operate autonomously, carrying out repairs in areas that are difficult for humans to reach, such as offshore wind farms. The stickiness of the polymer means that the robots could also potentially be used to transport hazardous materials, such as radioactive waste that is dangerous for humans to approach.

"Like in nature, the robots will have specialised functions and division of labour," Dr Kovacs said. "Using swarm intelligence, the robots will be able to perform very complex tasks of autonomous inspection and aerial construction effectively. For example, inspection drones will create a 3D scan to detect damage in hazardous environments and a second swarm of construction drones will selectively repair the structure with aerial 3D printing."

Check it out in action in the video below.