x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

Sky’s the limit for Emirati student and his 3D-printing drone

Talib Alhinai, a 22-year-old Emirati PhD student at Imperial College London is part of a team studying innovative, occasionally outlandish uses for drones, including one that can ‘3D-print’ while hovering in mid-air.

Talib Alhinai is part of a team studying innovative, occasionally outlandish uses for drones, including one that can ‘3D-print’ while hovering in mid-air. Stephen Lock for The National
Talib Alhinai is part of a team studying innovative, occasionally outlandish uses for drones, including one that can ‘3D-print’ while hovering in mid-air. Stephen Lock for The National

LONDON // For far too long, drones that destroy have been damaging the reputation of the unmanned aerial craft, according to an Emirati graduate student.

In response, Talib Alhinai, a PhD student at Imperial College London has designed his own drone – one that creates.

The 22-year-old is part of a team studying innovative, occasionally outlandish uses for drones, including one that can “3D-print” while hovering in mid-air.

The Abu Dhabi native explained his work while standing outside a room with the moniker “Super Top Secret Rocket Lab”.

Inside, drones of varying sizes were scattered around, alongside some bulky lab testing equipment, including a fume cupboard and submersion tank.

While the drones are the sort readily available in shops, these have been modified by the students for such uses as 3D-printing, or even diving into water.

While drones might conjure up images of military attacks, the Imperial College students are looking for healthier applications. “The word ‘drone’ has a negative connotation,” said Mr Alhinai. “But it’s important to establish that not all drones are bad, there is huge potential.”

The prototype flying 3D-printer was created by a team of students working under Dr Mirko Kovac, director of the university’s aerial robotics laboratory.

Inspired by swiftlets, tiny birds that build nests using their own saliva, the four-propeller drone can mix two chemicals to create a foam that when “printed” expands and sets.

The technology has a range of potential uses, from fixing roofs to repairing gas pipelines with pinpoint accuracy. It can also carry out tasks in areas that are hostile to humans.

Swarms of the drones could be used to build structures after a natural disaster, or to remove nuclear waste or other hazardous objects by printing a sticky foam and lifting the item away.

“You can have a ‘sacrificial drone’ that comes in and picks something up. And if it blows up, you only lose a drone,” said Mr Alhinai.

A prototype of the 3D-printing flying robot has been on display at the London Science Museum, under a sign asking “Would you let this drone fix your home?”

But before it got there it was already making an impression – quite literally – in the robotics lab where Mr Alhinai works.

During testing, the computer-controlled drone shot up into the ceiling, leaving marks where the propellers struck.

“By mistake it shot up into the roof and got stuck.”

Mr Alhinai arrived at Imperial College in 2013, just one week after he graduated in mechatronic engineering, a mix of mechanics and electronics, from the University of Manchester.

He said his family had been really encouraging in his studies, with his father visiting London last week to see drones in action, and to visit the exhibit at the nearby Science Museum.

His studies are sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Government, and he hopes to return to the UAE after he finishes his studies next year, to continue his work developing drones that can help humans.

“I would like to go and give something back,” he said.

Mr Alhinai pointed to initiatives in the UAE, such as the Drones for Good Award launched last February, which invited ideas for practical uses for unmanned aerial vehicles.

There are also government plans to use drones to deliver official documents and packages to citizens. But there have been concerns raised over the use of unmanned vehicles in the UAE.

This month, air traffic over Dubai was suspended for 55 minutes because of recreational drones being flown into the flight paths. As a result, the local aviation authority planned to issue new regulations on the use of drones, it was reported.

Maximilian Haas-Heger, an undergraduate student at the school, said that there needed to be greater legislation governing drone use, particularly around sensitive areas such as airports and power stations.

The 21-year-old studies next to the university lab’s ‘flight arena’, where the drones are taken for test runs. The area resembles a giant, blacked-out cricket practice cage, surrounded by safety nets to catch any stray drones.

The German, now in his fourth and final year of an aeronautic engineering course, helped to develop the computer scripts that control the 3D-printing drone.

“I personally really like writing something on the computer and seeing it applied to a physical system in real life. That’s something that I find absolutely incredible,” Mr Haas-Heger said.

While he sees great humanitarian and civil uses for drones, in future they could even be delivering pizza. “You think it’s crazy now but you’ll see.”

newsdesk@thenational.ae