Scientists at the Imperial College London have developed the world’s first flying 3D printer. Using small, preprogrammed drones, Dr. Mirko Kovac and his team from the Aerial Robotics Laboratory have built prototypes that promise to one day go where no human dares go—into a damaged nuclear reactor to contain and remove leaking waste.

Chernobyl Memorial, nuclear disaster, nuclear waste cleanup, nuclear disaster cleanup

The bio-inspiration for the design came from swiftlets, which are small birds that build their nests from their own saliva while in flight. In a similar fashion, two drones work in a team. The first uses its on-board 3D printer to deposit polyurethane foam on a designated point. Mixed at point of extrusion, the foam begins to set on its target. Then the second drone flies in, fixes itself to the target with the foam and carries the object away. Currently the drone prototypes are limited to sealing a small area or removing a small object up to 5.5 pounds in weight. With further developments, however, the possibilities are remarkable for containment or removal of hazardous wastes or objects in otherwise impossible-to-reach places. It is estimated that future versions of the drones could have the capacity to carry an almost 90-pound payload.

Related: The Biomimicry Manual: What Can Paper Wasps Teach Us About 3D printing?

The drones are programmed using GPS coordinates, and while video footage shows them to be a little messy on dispersal now, it is expected that the technology will rapidly develop to increase accuracy. There are plans to run the drones on solar power, allowing them to recharge themselves mid-mission, and there are many other potential applications for them, including rainforest canopy surveys and construction in difficult terrain. Dr. Kovac and his team will be demonstrating the prototypes at the Imperial Festival in London on  May 9 and 10, 2014, and at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, in Hong Kong, May 31, 2014 . The team will also soon be presenting further details in the upcoming publication, “3D Printing with Flying Robots,” by Graham Hunt, Faidon Mitzalis, Talib Alhinai, Paul Hooper, and Mirko Kovac.

+ Imperial College London Aerial Robotics Lab

Via New Scientist

Photos by Imperial College London Aerial Robotics Laboratory and via Wikimedia Commons