The bees they have the ability to know how to do their job without anyone telling them. They divide to take care of the larvae, keep the hive clean and collect pollen to make honey, all with a high level of sophistication. Nature teaches that collective, scalable, robust and adaptive construction is possible. And robotics is learning now to take advantage of similar properties.
A study published Wednesday in Nature features a fleet of drones that organize like bees to do construction and repair work in hard-to-reach or dangerous places. The team of researchers from different disciplines, led by Mirko Kovacdirector of Laboratory for Aerial Robotics at Imperial College of Londonhas moved the heights a technology that is already executed by static robots: to build houses and repair tall buildings. They are an evolution of 3D printers, which have learned to fly, at least in laboratory tests.
The fleet of machines is divided into two teams: one made up of “builder drones” (BuilDrones), which work like 3D printers and deposit the material precisely. And another made up of “scanning drones” (ScanDrones), which monitor the work and give indications of what should be done at all times. In this way, they work collaboratively, adapting their techniques as they go.
The work of ensuring coordination is carried out by artificial intelligence. These drones are fully autonomous while flying and are supervised by a human controller who checks progress and intervenes if necessary, based on information provided by the fleet itself.
To prove the concept, the drones built a two-meter structure with a polyurethane-based foam material and another 18 centimeters with a type of cement developed specifically for the experiment. During construction, the vehicles evaluated the printed geometry in real time and adapted their behavior to ensure they met the project specifications, to within five millimeters in the case of the concrete structure.
Kovac, one of the world references in the development of drones, maintains that a great novelty of this research is that it has been approached in a multidisciplinary way when applying the Physical Artificial Intelligence: the practice of creating physical systems capable of performing tasks typically performed by intelligent organisms. “It’s about integrating the materials, with the robots, with the controllers, and with the architecture,” he says.
From the laboratory to the construction site
The study has been carried out in the laboratory, but in the not too distant future this type of technology can help reduce costs and, above all, will reduce risks in construction-related tasks. “We don’t want this to replace all builders, but if we reach a small percentage of the industry, it would be a big step forward,” stresses the expert, who is also head of the Center for Robotics Materials and Technology at the Science Institute of Empa materials in Switzerland. His team is currently carrying out pilot work with companies in the repair industry in the UK.
Animal-inspired UAVs are nothing new. Hannibal Olleroknown for being the father of drones in Spain, has developed a type of bird inspired aircraft that can reduce the number of occupational accidents of operators performing high-risk inspection tasks. The Sevillian, who is scientific adviser to the Center for Aerospace Technologies (CATEC), explains that aircraft capable of assembling in inaccessible places, measuring the corrosion of pipes, touching bridges or a tunnel to see if there are cracks are already a reality. “We have prototypes that can do it now,” says the professor at the University of Seville.
According to Ollero, the technology needed for drones to replace humans in these risky situations, or even taxis and to the food distributors, it is already developed; What is needed is to establish regulations that allow it to be contemplated. For this, the UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and Urban Air Mobility Center for Innovation has been created in Seville, which aims to integrate all the aspects that involve having drones in the skies of the city.
This means that vehicles are safer, that air traffic and the city’s infrastructure are integrated. And not least, social acceptance. “It is necessary that they do not make noise and that they respect privacy. The technologies, from the point of view of development, are ready with different degrees of maturity. In some cases, fully developed. But, as is natural, in the aeronautical sector, before its use can be generalized, safety must be considered from all points of view”, concludes Ollero.