Could Swarm Drones Build HS2 and All Future Infrastructure Projects in the UK?

Jan 12, 2024

Swarm drones are an emerging technology that has become significantly more advanced, especially in recent months, but could these teams of robots build infrastructure projects like HS2 in its entirety?

To answer this question it is necessary to understand the types of swarm drones currently in use and in development soon to be released.

Swarm drones are groups of small drones that send signals to communicate with each other and do not require a centralised computer to control their functions.

In 2022 swarm drones were used in a military context with Israel using them against Hamas targets long before the current conflict in Gaza erupted. It has not yet been reported that swarm drones have been used in the current conflict but specific details and operational aspects will normally be kept away from the public if possible. However, any news footage with live feeds from Gaza will usually feature the continual buzzing of unmanned aircraft in the background. Could these be the sounds of swarm drones in operation?

As experts in IT services for the construction industry in London, we don't just look at the present: We also turn our eyes towards the future. So without further ado, our take on the future of drones in the construction industry...

Swarm Drones That Can Navigate a Forest

Researchers at Zhejiang University managed to train a swarm of 10 drones to fly through a forest at speed, avoiding obstacles and navigating independently, sending data to each other using onboard sensors.

The drones zoom around in formation and not only avoid hitting all the trees but also any objects or obstacles placed in the way during flight, including the researchers themselves walking into the path of the swarm.

Without the need for a centralised computer to control the drones, they can react and adapt quickly to any interruptions to their flight path, if, for example, boxes are placed in their path or other vehicles or even humans get in the way.

Tunnel Digging Swarm Drones 

Flying through a forest does not help infrastructure projects like HS2 be completed on time, however. So where is the logic in this argument? 

As mentioned previously there are a range of different drone swarm applications currently in use and in development. One such system is capable of building tunnels underground with no humans entering the site.

Traditionally tunnel digging methods would involve either drilling and blasting sections of rock with explosives or more recently using a tunnel boring machine or TBM to complete the task.

Normally, you dig the hole for the tunnel first, then quickly build the walls of the tunnel inside it whilst the excavation process is in place.  

This latest method involves swarms of drones that actually build the tunnel in the ground first, then remove the soil from the inside, the complete opposite way to how it normally works, turning the process on its head.

The process starts by digging small holes in the target area and around the spot where you want to build your tunnel, creating a sort of perimeter outline of the tunnel, with the holes filled with bore pipes.

Samples of the soil are used to create a digital twin—like a virtual blueprint of the geology with all the data needed by the army of robots that will build the tunnel.

Robots are placed inside the pipes where they begin constructing the shell of the tunnel. The way they do this is an extremely novel method.

They start by drilling access points along the length of the pipes they scurry along, in order to inject a composite material into the earth which hardens to make segments of the tunnel lining.

In between these splodges of hardened material, the robots use a tiny cutting arm to cut further gaps in the soil for the substance to be injected into. 

With this method, they can use the geology itself to support and become part of the infrastructure. The robots can place the building blocks wherever they need to. So if there’s a particularly dense piece of rock in the way, that will be incorporated into the structure of the tunnel, with the swarm drones filling in the gaps where needed.

Eventually, the entire casing of the tunnel is built up piece by piece until a single solid structure is left, still fixed in the ground and surrounded on all sides by earth.

These systems can accommodate 5000 or even 10,000 of these drones operating in one tunnel. They can pass over and around each other in the bore pipes they travel through, meaning that multiple drones can operate within a single pipe.

Once the tunnel is built underground, automated mining robots remove all the soil from the inside, meaning that no human needs to enter the tunnel construction site until it is finished, with just the road to lay or the railway to put down.

3D Printing Drone Swarms

Of course, not every infrastructure or construction project requires a tunnel to be built. In most cases, the main aspect would be the physical structures that need to be created, such as housing or other buildings.

So how would swarm drones revolutionise these types of projects that involve building structures?

Imperial College London and Empa researchers have created a swarm of drones that can create structures out of foam and concrete by flying over and 3D printing them on the fly—known collectively as Aerial Additive Manufacturing (Aerial-AM).

Very similar to a standard camera drone but with a 3D printer slung underneath that can squirt a bit of the material into a complex pattern following a blueprint and build up the structure layer by layer.

The 3D printing “building” swarm drones work in conjunction with another drone that uses a depth-sensing camera to capture a 3D map of the work in progress. This allows the drone swarm working alongside it to adjust the construction process as needed.

They take it in turns to pass over the structure being built—the 3D printing drones squirt their stuff then move out of the way for the camera drone to fly over and capture the 3D model. The data is relayed to the builder swarm then the camera gets out of the way for the builders to go back and squirt out another layer. This process is repeated until the structure is slowly created bit by bit.   

The individual 3D printing drones in the swarm can operate for about 10 minutes at a time before they have to go back and restock the building materials.

This may seem a little arduous and pointless but these types of systems will be ideal for construction in remote or hazardous areas and as the technology develops there will be no reason why these types of 3D printing drone swarms won’t be able to build a full skyscraper or a bridge from scratch. 

Through flight testing, it has already been shown that multiple drones working in conjunction with each other can build a dome-shaped structure, so the potential is there to build some quite complex structures in any environment—the top of a mountain, in an area exposed to severe biological contaminants, or even in space or another planet. The scope for 3D printing drone swarms to revolutionise the industry is enormous.

Incorporating All Systems Together—What Does the Future Hold?

Of course, it isn't hard to imagine a near future where all of these systems are incorporated together into a fully-fledged drone-building program.

You could have tunnelling swarms working in conjunction with 3D printing drones that can communicate with each other and do not even need an outside signal or source of WiFi connection. 

The drone swarm in the first example that can navigate through the forest can receive sufficient signal from other drones in the swarm, relayed from one to the next. So there would be no problem operating underground or in places with weak or no signal. 

This technology would be ideal for particularly hazardous environments, for example repairing a nuclear power plant. With the ability to build any structure, or dig through any material, whilst operating independently like a hive of bees, swarm drones could represent the future of all building projects. 

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