Bees have the ability to know their job without anyone telling them. They split up to care for the young, keep the hive clean, and collect pollen to make honey at a high level of sophistication. Nature teaches that collective, scalable, robust and adaptive construction is possible. And robotics has now learned to take advantage of similar properties.
A study published today in Nature features a fleet of drones that work like bees to build and repair hard-to-reach or dangerous places like tall buildings. The team of researchers from different disciplines and led by Professor Mirko Kovac, director of the Rerea Robotics Laboratory of the Imperial College of London, has taken to the air a technology that is already executed by static robots: that of building houses and repairing buildings. They are a new step of 3D printers that have learned to fly, at least on a laboratory scale.
The drone fleet is divided into two teams: one made up of “builder drones” (BuilDrones) that work like 3D printers by depositing material precisely. And another formed by “scanning drones” (ScanDrones) that monitor the construction and give indications of what should be done next. In this way, they work cooperatively, adapting their techniques as they go.
The job of ensuring coordination is handled 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. Throughout manufacturing, 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.
Professor Kovac, one of the world references in drone development, maintains that a great novelty of this research is the multidisciplinary approach when applying Physical Artificial Intelligence: the practice of creating physical systems capable of performing tasks typically carried out 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 presents a laboratory-scale execution, but in the near future this type of technology can help reduce costs and, above all, risks in construction. “We don’t want this to replace all builders, but if we reached a small percentage of the industry, it would be a big step forward,” says Kovac, who is also head of the Center for Robotics Materials and Technology at the Science Institute of Technology. Empa materials in Switzerland. His team is currently carrying out experimental work with companies in the repair sector in the United Kingdom.
Animal-inspired UAVs are nothing new. Anibal Ollero, known for being the father of drones in Spain, has developed a type of aircraft inspired by birds that can reduce the number of occupational accidents for operators who carry out high-risk inspection tasks. The Sevillian, who is a 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 a reality. “We have prototypes that can be done now,” says a professor at the University of Seville.
According to Ollero, the necessary technology for drones to replace humans in these risky situations, or even taxis and food delivery people, is already developed; What is needed is to develop 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 involved in having drones in the skies of the city.
This means that the vehicles are safer, that they integrate with air traffic and also with the city’s infrastructure. 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.
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Source: EL PAIS