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Technology Factsheet

Foam Squirting Quadrocopter

Category: Robotics > Decontamination > Airborne System
Reference # : Model No :

Inspired by the swiftlet bird, scientists at Imperial College London's Aerial Robotics Lab have created a robotic quadcopter that can extrude polyurethane foam while in flight. By targeting where that foam goes, it can build up simple structures, essentially becoming a flying 3D printer.

Scientists from Imperial College London have developed a prototype 3D printing Micro Aerial Vehicle (MAV) that mimics the way that swiftlets build their nests. The MAV is a quad-copter, with four blades that enable it to fly and hover. It is made from off-the-shelf components, making it inexpensive to construct. It carries in its underbelly two chemicals that create polyurethane foam when mixed, and a printing module to deliver the foam. The foam can then be used to build simple structures or repair components. The MAV could be used to carry out tasks in a range of environments that are hostile to humans. For example, they could inspect and repair industrial facilities such as offshore wind farms in remote and hard-to-reach locations. The texture of the polymer exuded from the 3D printer also means that it can create ’grippers‘ to stick onto and transport objects to different locations. This means that the MAV could potentially be used to pick up and remove bombs, or to dispose of hazardous materials such as radioactive waste from crippled reactors, without exposing humans to danger. Currently, the MAV can only fly in a controlled environment, using external sensors that feed information to a laptop. These process the information and send flight instructions back to the MAV via an on-board processor. The next step for the team is to enable the vehicle to fly autonomously in any environment. They plan to incorporate high-speed cameras and sensors on board the MAV, which will act like a satellite navigation system for tracking and controlling of the flight trajectory. A British researcher has combined two emerging technologies that could revolutionize the removal of hazardous waste. Mirko Kovac of the Imperial College of London is leading a team that uses a tag-team approach to waste management by deploying two drones – a quadcopter paired with a 3D printer and a hexacopter capable of lifting up to 5.5 pounds. Rowan Hooper of New Scientist explains: The quadcopter carries two chemicals which create polyurethane foam when mixed, and a printing module to extrude the foam. [The quadcopter] hovers over a box … before squirting the foam on to the box … The hexacopter now lands on the foam and, after … the foam sets hard, it takes off again, carrying the box with it. This kind of one-two drone punch could make the process of removing nuclear waste from a scene much safer. In addition, the drone duo, which works almost autonomously, could be used for “ad-hoc construction of first response structures in search-and-rescue scenarios,” and “printing structures to bridge gaps in discontinuous terrain,” according to the research team’s statement of purpose. They could conceivably be used for applications such as performing repairs in areas too remote or dangerous for humans to easily access, such as wind turbines or nuclear reactors. Or potential applying fixative or decontamination gel for decommissioning.

Site: *
Industry:Research
Size:Small (1-5kg/2lb-20lb, 10-30cm/4in-12in length )
TRL:Development (4-6)
TRL2: *
Tether:No tether - Endurance Unknown
Waterproof: *
Payload: *
Reach: *
Manipulator:No

Benefits

Limitations

Comments

The robot's platform is made from inexpensive 3D-printed components and carbon fiber supports. It has two canisters containing separate liquid chemicals on its underside. When those chemicals mix together as they pass through its extrusion nozzle, a chemical reaction occurs and they turn to foam. Then there is a printing module to deliver the foam. The foam can then be used to build simple structures or repair components.

The texture of the polymer exuded from the 3D printer also means that it can create ’grippers‘ to stick onto and transport objects to different locations. This means that the Micro Aerial Vehicle (MAV) could potentially be used to pick up and remove bombs, or to dispose of hazardous materials such as radioactive waste from crippled reactors, without exposing humans to danger.

In its current form, the aircraft uses GPS and an external system of 16 infrared cameras to identify targets upon which to spray the foam, within an indoor lab. That sensor data is transmitted to a nearby laptop computer, that is able to compensate for the constantly-changing angle and mass of the copter's printing payload. Based on that processed data, the computer relays flight and extrusion commands back to the robot.

There's a secondary system. It's a hexacopter, and instead of an extrusion system, it just has a disposable flat surface on its underside. After the first robot (the quadcopter) sprays foam onto a target, the hexacopter simply lands on that target, waits for the wet foam to cure onto its underside, then flies away with the target adhered to it.

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