Aerial Additive Building Manufacturing: Distributed Unmanned Aerial Systems for in-situ manufacturing of the built environment

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Dept of Aeronautics


Additive Building Manufacturing (ABM) is transforming the construction industry through the 3D printing of buildings and building components. A number of countries are now demonstrating ABM can substantially reduce construction time, material and transport costs, improve worker safety standards and alleviate construction's impact on urban traffic congestion and the environment. ABM also provides geometrical variety at no additional cost. In contrast to most manufacturing sectors, variety is a necessity within construction to satisfy different client requirements and adapt to unique terrain, boundary and laws governing each physical site.
However, current ABM systems are difficult to deploy on construction sites due to their large size and fixed 3D Print build volumes that are not sufficiently flexible to deal with the complexities of most building scenarios, or provide adequate measures for human safety. These ABM technologies are unable to undertake maintenance and repair work, or construct buildings in many urban or elevated sites. They are also not able to be utilised for post-disaster reconstruction activities where their manufacturing speed would be of great assistance.
To address this limitation, this research proposal aims to develop the world's first Aerial Additive Building Manufacturing (Aerial ABM) System consisting of a swarm of aerial robots (Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)) that can autonomously assess and manufacture building structures. Aerial ABM offers major improvements to human safety, speed, flexibility, and manufacturing efficiency compared to existing ABM and standard building construction technologies. We have already developed and demonstrated pilot results using UAS that can extrude 3D Print material during flight and we have developed simulation environments that allow for autonomous planning and execution of manufacturing with swarms of UAS working in collaboratively.
Using the resources of the EPSRC grant, we will co-develop and demonstrate a working Aerial ABM system that will manufacture structural elements such as walls and a freeform building pavilion. This will require innovation and major technical contributions in Hardware, Autonomy as well as in Materials and Structures. Building on the consortium's world-leading expertise in these areas and support from industrial partners (Skanska, Ultimaker, BuroHappold, Dyson and BRE), we aim at delivering the following main research contributions through this grant:

Aerial ABM Hardware
- A novel Aerial ABM robot design with autonomous vision based stabilisation, navigation and mapping of a dynamically changing environment that is optimised for flight and 3D Printing tasks.

Aerial ABM Autonomy
- A framework for autonomous manufacturing that utilises swarm intelligence for collaborative robot-to-robot operations, dynamic task sharing/allocation, adaptive response to context and dynamic environment content involving functions such as new methods of collision avoidance.
- Develop new modes of communication and control that enable the safe co-existence and cooperation of human workers, other robots and Aerial ABM robots on construction sites. Novel research in human-robot interaction, feedback and haptic interface functionalities will enable manufacturing flexibility suitable for construction sites that are always unique in size, shape and contextual complexity.
- An integrated design and real-time structural analysis software that delivers optimal structural integrity from minimal material weight within building design strategies that leverage this free-form manufacturing process to create innovative building design possibilities.

Aerial ABM Materials and Structures
- Development of new high-performance 3D-printable composite material and deposition procedures for the additive manufacture (3D Printing) of free-form light-weight building structures utilising autonomous UAS.

Planned Impact

The three main impact beneficiaries are the construction sector, society at large and the environment. The Aerial Additive Building Manufacturing (Aerial ABM) system proposed in this application can provide substantial benefits by enabling autonomous capabilities of collaborative working with human workers, situational awareness in unknown environments and low-risk manipulation in dangerous settings. These capabilities will benefit the three beneficiaries as follows:

Construction companies such as Skanska are economically penalised for time over-runs. Our technology has the potential to reduce manufacture time and complexity while expanding capabilities by providing autonomous behaviours and sensing to predict, measure, qualify and expedite construction. This can provide major cost savings and increased profits.

Transportation accounts for 20% of construction costs [1]. Aerial ABM can significantly reduce transportation volumes as only raw material is delivered to site.

UK Government Construction Strategy mandates all construction projects to utilise 3D Building Information Models (BIM) technology by 2016 [2]. Aerial ABM is able to increase building efficiency by integrating BIM more effectively with the construction on site.

Health and Safety:
"The construction industry is the most dangerous sector in Britain....448 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Over the same period, more than 760 construction workers have been killed on British sites." notes the UK Health and Safety Executive in 2014 after seeing an additional 3200 deaths from other construction related matters [3]. An Aerial ABM system can significantly reduce construction's 31% share of all UK worker fatalities [4] by reducing risk to construction workers in hazardous and labour-intensive tasks while allowing continued human participation in safer construction activities.

Increasing Housing Opportunities:
The UK is heading for a housing crisis where people cannot afford to buy or rent as a result of a shortage in housing and high costs of building. A RICS report forecasts house prices to rise 4.5%/yr for the next 5yrs [1]. Charities such as Shelter [5] advocate that the UK must reduce the cost and time of construction in order to make housing and other building services more attainable. Aerial ABM can help reduce the cost and time of urban construction, through a scalable and digital manufacturing process that saves construction time and resources.

A fast, effective means to undertake post-disaster re-construction and repair can save human lives directly and indirectly. Aerial ABM robots can commence work well before human workers can operate safely and they can do so in areas that are hard to access by ground. The technology can offer Governments and NGOs versatile, rapidly deployable, and low-cost solutions for emergency response and transitional shelter construction.

Aerial ABM enables almost zero percent waste construction while its on-site operation reduces transportation volumes. The insights from this project on novel structural and material engineering can also inform building designs requiring less material and lower logistic mass flows. These benefits reduce the embodied energy of buildings and enable reductions in construction's 47% share of the UK's carbon emissions.

[1] BIM Taskgroup, HM Government BIS, 2014
[2] BRE, Construction Site Transport, The Next Big Thing: Why Transport Is Important What You Can Do About It, 2003.
[4] Daniel Boffey, The needless death of Richard Laco and what it tells us about Britain's perilous building sites, The Observer, 2014


10 25 50
Kovac M (2016) ROBOTICS. Learning from nature how to land aerial robots. in Science (New York, N.Y.)