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Your next house could be built by a swarm of 3D printer drones

If they start carrying hammers, we're in trouble.

By Cassidy Ward
Illustration of 3D printer drones

Drones are becoming a more and more common sight. What was once little more than a cool toy for hobbyists has blossomed into an array of new applications. It’s not uncommon to encounter a drone at a concert or other public gatherings, quietly capturing video to document the event. We find them at weddings, taking photos, and on movie sets catching shots you couldn’t get any other way. As the technology advances and becomes more affordable, we’re likely to see drones being used in all new ways.

They’re already being used to quickly deliver heart defibrillators to the scene of medical emergencies and protect our crops from pest animals. Agricultural use of drones was the inspiration for the movie Hover which imagines a world in which the ubiquity of drones causes dire consequences. Faced with environmental collapse, humanity turns over the tending of our crops to drones — or, more accurately, the corporation which owns and operates the drones — to dystopian results.

Whether drones become a threat to our species in the future remains to be seen, but in the meantime, they continue to move into more and more industries. In a recent issue of the journal Nature, an international team of scientists revealed a collaborative swarm of 3D printing drones which could be the construction crew of the future.

While drones have been slowly filling our skies, 3D printing has likewise been gaining ground among hobbyists and scientists. It was only a matter of time before the two technologies joined forces to create machines which can construct new structures on the fly.

At present, the use of 3D printing in construction is limited by the massive print arms required to support the print head. Before you can lay down your first line of concrete on your 3D printed house, you first have to assemble a rig which the printer can ride around from wall to wall. Consequently, 3D printing can only be used in areas which are relatively easy to access and are open enough to support the printing rig. That eliminates areas where quick construction might be most useful, like remote destinations or uneven terrain.

The team wanted a way to deliver those technologies to hard-to-reach places, and they found the answer while watching bees. A hive of bees or wasps collectively constructs their hives by chewing up wax, wood, or other materials and spitting them out in a honeycomb structure. In many ways, this is similar to the additive manufacturing many 3D printers utilize.

Illustration of 3D printer drones carrying concrete

From a certain point of view, the 3D printing drones are like a mechanical swarm of bees, each delivering material one line at a time to the right place. Liberating the 3D construction method from attached infrastructure opens it up to the construction or repair of structures in a wider range of locations. Drones could fly to their destination independent of other materials and easily move around barriers.

One of the main challenges affecting the use of 3D printer drones is accuracy. If lines of material aren’t laid precisely where they’re meant to be, the structure could tip, collapse, or lose structural integrity. To that end, researchers implemented mechanical foremen to monitor the job and ensure it’s carried out correctly.

Printing drones are accompanied by scanning drones which fly around and analyze the construction as it’s being printed, then transmit any course corrections. The fleet would also be supervised by a human controller who could step in as needed. The printing drones themselves are also capable of minor adjustments to correct for environmental factors.

Anyone who has ever flown a drone knows they’re not the easiest to control, especially when accounting for the wind. Some of that is reduced by utilizing computer control instead of human pilots, but drones still get pushed off course. To address that concern, the drones are outfitted with a print head capable of adjusting its position to compensate for movement. As long as the drone stays more or less where it’s supposed to be, the print head does the rest, laying down lines of building material with millimeter precision.

The potential applications are wide ranging. Researchers suggest their system could be used to build houses in remote areas or quickly manufacture emergency housing in the wake of a disaster. Looking to the future, similar machines could be deployed on other planets where they could build structures in advance of human arrival.

The Ingenuity helicopter already demonstrated that drones are capable of operating in the comparatively thin atmosphere of Mars and there are plans for a pair of drones to collect rock samples from the red planet for an eventual return mission to Earth.

It seems that wherever we go from now on, drones will be there. Which means if they ever do decide to take over our planet, or planets, we won’t have anywhere to run.