A quadcopter outfitted with an on-board 3D printer could be used to seal off and transport nuclear waste, or even to build structures in the middle of nowhere, according to its inventor, Mirko Kovac of University College, London. "In effect, it's the world's first flying 3D printer," New Scientist writes. "One day such drones might work together to help remove waste from nuclear sites or help patch up damaged buildings."
Apparently inspired by the nest-building behaviour of swifts, birds that construct spaces using their own saliva, the machine uses a mixture of two chemicals that combine to form a quick-hardening polyurethane foam. That foam—otherwise unstructured, and only applied as precisely as the quadcopter's stability would allow—then acts as an adhesive, basically sticking the drone to small containers of waste that can then be airlifted to safety.
But the messy state of affairs seen in the video embedded above is also a pretty clear indication that the tech has not yet caught up to the dreams of its inventors—or perhaps that they are even looking in the wrong area. After all, radiation-resistant foams applied on a large-enough scale to have any real effect on a nuclear disaster seem quite a ways off.
On the other hand, bulbous, drone-printed architectural forms designed with the limitations of these aerial printheads in mind could be a viable new construction process. Some strange and autonomous new city of foam quietly takes shape atop a lost plateau in South America, as wayward aerial printers congregate there, spewing polyurethane like mist as they construct dense labyrinths of towers and tunnels populated only by 3D printers. [New Scientist]