'Flying 3D printers' could make disaster zones safe by sealing up nuclear waste


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The Independent Tech

Flying 3D printers could provide assistance in disaster zones by covering radioactive material in a foam sealant and carting it to a safe area, say scientists.

A team of engineers from Imperial College London led by Mirko Kovac have demonstrated the concept at a scaled down level with a pair of commercial drones.

In their tests (shown below) a quadrocopter with four rotors targets a piece of ‘nuclear waste’ and covers it with polyurethane, using a 3D printing module to create the foam in midair.

A second drone – a hardier hexacopter –then lands on the foam-covered object and waits for it set, effectively attaching the ‘waste’ to the drone before flying the dangerous material far away.

The whole operating happens ‘more or less’ autonomously, according to a report in the New Scientist, with GPS coordinates used to locate the target.


The team from Imperial say that the concept could be used for the "ad-hoc construction of first response structures in search-and-rescue scenarios," as well as "printing structures to bridge gaps in discontinuous terrain".

Kovac and his team were inspired by the actions of the swiftlet – a bird native to South-East Asia that makes its own nest by coughing up and layering together thick strands of spit. These constructions are the primary ingredient in bird’s nest soup, and the industry that farms them is worth an estimated $5 billion globally.

In the future, the Imperial team suggests that scaled-up drones could use the same 3D printing technology to build their own nests in the treetops, deploying solar panels to recharge their batteries.

However, some have criticized the project for its hyperbole, noting that the rudimentary chemical mixers used on the drone are not anywhere near as sophisticated as even basic 3D printers.

Thomas J Creedy, a PhD student who worked on the drones, said in a statement: "This is an exciting first step in the lab's development of co-operative robotic systems for building structures inspired by the natural world."