Imagine the construction site of the future. In the age of the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’, could we instead soon see squads of workers in hard hats and high-visibility vests being replaced by swarms of drones, which are made from 3D-printed components, buzzing overhead?
Talib Alhinai, founder of drone startup Buildrone, believes so. ‘For the most part, buildings have been built the same way for thousands of years, but I think technology like drones can have a big part to play’, he says. ‘Our five to ten year vision is to have an army of 20-30 drones that could be deployed after natural disasters…and work together to build a single shelter in a couple of hours.’
While experimental drone deliveries by the likes of Amazon have grabbed the headlines, the construction industry has emerged as a key driver of the burgeoning commercial drone industry.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers the global market for business services using drones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs—is valued at more than US$127 billion, with more than one-third attributed to the infrastructure and construction industries.
Drones are already proving useful in the construction industry for tasks such as aerial surveying and safety monitoring. Meanwhile, 3D printing can manufacture anything from shoes and furniture to human organs and components for the nuclear industry. But it is the potential of using drones and 3D printing together that is inspiring inventors like Talib.
After graduating with first class honours in Mechatronic Engineering from the University of Manchester in 2013, the 25-year-old Emirati created the world’s first 3D-printing drone during his PhD studies at the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College London. He also led the Buildrone team to victory at the UAE Drones for Good Award in 2016—known as ‘the World Cup of drones’—for a drone that can detect and repair pipeline leaks by depositing polyurethane foam layer by layer.
When developing this futuristic technology, Talib and his team looked to the natural world for inspiration—a process known as biomimicry. ‘All other species of birds collect nest materials from their environment, but the edible-nest swiftlet self-secretes its nests, building nests entirely out of its own saliva, layer by layer, on the sides of cliffs in Southeast Asia. So for us, that was a point of inspiration’, says Talib.
‘3D printers were just becoming popular and were also a point of inspiration. The technology has moved at a rapid pace, particularly in the past five years, because a lot of the patents on 3D printing and additive building manufacturing [ABM]—where you build a building, or a part of a building, layer by layer—were expiring’, explains Talib.
A research group led by Talib’s PhD alma mater is working with industry partners such as Skanska and BuroHappold to further develop aerial ABM using drones. Along with reducing construction times, material and transport costs, and easing traffic and environmental impacts, the technology has the potential to improve safety in hard to access areas and dangerous conditions often faced in construction work and post-disaster reconstruction.
‘The idea is to have swarms of these drones working together to build a structure very quickly. Our five to ten year vision is to have an army of 20-30 drones that could be deployed after natural disasters, such as tsunamis or earthquakes, and work together to build a single shelter in a couple of hours. That’s really our motivation in what this technology can be useful for’, says Talib.’I would definitely not be surprised if, by 2030, we have eight-storey buildings put together by 3D-printed parts’.
Meanwhile, the UAE government has ambitious goals for 3D-printing technology. In 2016, the world’s first 3D-printed office, the Office of the Future, was unveiled in the gardens of Emirates Towers. By 2030, the goal is for a quarter of buildings in Dubai to be constructed using 3D-printing technology.
‘I think buildings on the scale of houses and villas would be completely achievable by 2030. And I would definitely not be surprised if, by 2030, we have eight-storey buildings put together by 3D-printed parts’, says Talib.
‘What is exciting is that with 3D-printing technology you can factor in the building integration system [such as heating, ventilation and lighting] so you don’t have to have specialists coming at different stages of construction to install different parts. You would be able to do this end-to-end holistically, which would mean buildings get built much cheaper and faster’, he says.
But with a 2017 report by the McKinsey Global Institute estimating that, by 2030, between 400 million and 800 million workers worldwide could be replaced by automation and robots, could drone and 3D-printing technology eventually mean mass unemployment for construction workers in the region?
Talib believes drones can supplement the role of human workers. ‘I always look at drones as tools to get the job done in the same way the hand drill makes the job for a construction worker easier. Drones can attempt to repair a gas leak in an offshore oil refinery, but a lot of the times it is the experience and knowledge of the human drone pilot [that is just as important]’, says Talib.
Having recently returned to the UAE after seven years studying abroad, Talib has an exciting year ahead before he enlists for military service. Alongside his work for Buildrone, Talib is working on a project with the Dubai Future Foundation to accelerate science and technology entrepreneurship in the emirate. ‘We’re trying to encourage anyone who has an idea like Hyperloop, for example, to come to Dubai and [for the emirate to] be the testing ground for new innovation’, he says. For inventors like Talib, the sky is the limit.
Lara Brunt is an Australian-British journalist. She has written for The Telegraph, Lonely Planet and The Traveller.