Robot drones could 'print' buildings and disaster shelters, says researcher


Dr Mirko Kovac

Dr Mirko Kovac (left) will create swarms of construction-bots

Drone swarms that can print emergency shelters for survivors of natural disasters are just around the corner, says Mirko Kovac in an interview.

Colin Smith visited Imperial College London’s flight arena, buried deep in the bowels of the Department of Aeronautics, to speak to Dr Kovac. In between carrying out tests on a prototype aerial robot for repairing oil pipelines, Dr Kovac spoke about his research and the future benefits aerial robotics could bring in construction.

Dr Kovac and his team have received more than £3.4 million in funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and industrial partners. His project will push forward the development of aerial construction-bots, equipped with 3D printing technology, which excrete materials that can be used to repair or build structures.

One potential application is in disaster relief, says Dr Kovac. These types of emergencies can throw up all types of physical obstacles such as landslides and floods, which prevents teams from reaching those in need in a timely way. Dr Kovac says the aerial drones he is developing could fly to a disaster zone, scan and model the landscape using Building Information Management (BIM) systems, design temporary shelters, and print them on the spot. This could give those in need a place to live until emergency services personnel can reach them.

This process, called Additive Building Manufacturing (ABM), is already being trialled in many parts of the world by the construction industry. It involves the use of large robots on a building site that extrude building materials to construct buildings, similar to a 3D printer. This process has the advantage of reducing construction times, material and transport costs and easing traffic and environmental impacts.

These technologies also have the potential to improve safety in the building industry. According to the International Labour Organisation, at least 60,000 people are killed every year on construction sites - around one death every 10 minutes. However, the current approaches are all ground-based, onlying operating in easily accessible locations, and they can only build small structures.

Dr Kovac will lead a team of researchers who are aiming to advance ABM technology so that construction could be carried out for the first time from the air. The team plan to miniaturise ABM and give it aerial capabilities so that it can be more mobile and able to manufacture complex high-rise structures. This would enable the robots to be flying mini-factories, where they would land at to a construction site work together to create buildings from scratch. Dr Kovac says giving ABM technology flying capabilities also means that they’d be able to reach places that are currently very dangerous for construction or emergency workers to get to.

Dr Kovac is leading the project as Principal Investigator with partners from the Dyson Robotics Lab at Imperial, the University of Bath, University College London and the Architectural Association School of Architecture. Industrial partners on the projects are leaders in construction, robotics and 3d printing including the BRE Trust, Buro Happold, Cementation Skanska, Dyson Limited and Ultimaker BV.


Colin Smith

Colin Smith
Communications and Public Affairs

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