Can we build a fully mobile 3D printer, not limited by the X, Y, or Z axis?

Research Project Name

3D Printing Takes Flight

What We Did

We undertook a multiyear prototyping project with a goal of creating a 3D printer that could generate objects of any size and in remote locations. The concept behind the research is astonishingly simple: free the print head from its container and attach it to an aerial vehicle. The impact is potentially vast—if the objects created by 3D printers are not limited in size by the dimensions of the printer, the applications expand dramatically.

We began our research by conducting an extensive third-party audit of successful 3D printing and robotic platforms. With this information, we set out to design and fabricate our own proprietary 3D printer and modify an off-the-shelf hexacopter (an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV) to carry it. Our goal was to explore this advanced technology and discover new ways it could be utilized for the creation of architecture for both commercial and humanitarian purposes.

The Context

Three-dimensional printing provides endless opportunities to revolutionize everyday life, and as the costs continue to fall, those opportunities are becoming increasingly more accessible. Thanks in part to our research, discussions about using mobile 3D printing technology to create structures are taking place in various sectors across the globe. In parallel, UAV technology continues to make significant advances, improving in both quality and price. The combination of these technologies provides a key opportunity for using 3D technology to improve the processes we use to construct and manage our built environment.

The Results

We developed a functioning prototype Mobile Unmanned Printing Platform (MUPP), including an extruder (the component of the printer that deposits materials into layers), built from the ground up, and optimized for use on a hexacopter through an iterative, rapid prototyping process. Each component is parametrically controlled and can be adapted to different-size copters or to accommodate different materials in a matter of minutes.

We designed the feeder with an open top to allow for liquid material to be refilled during flight. When activated, a custom-made auger moves material through the conveyor and out the nozzle. The location and quantity of material output is controlled by toggling when the auger rotates. For our initial testing, we developed a lightweight, rapid-setting concrete that sets within 15 minutes. This ensures the material can be layered on top of itself without slumping.

What This Means

One key implication is for improved disaster relief efforts. Leveraging local building materials, a large-scale MUPP could be deployed to construct temporary relief shelters or repair damaged levees on sites that are cut off from traditional modes of transportation. They could also be deployed for disaster preparedness efforts by constructing flood-water diversion barriers to protect property and infrastructure.

Payload capacity and flight time are the two biggest limiting factors to widespread implementation of devices such as MUPP. In order to overcome this, the concept of “teaming” must be implemented. With multiple MUPPs acting in support of one another— changing batteries and restocking material mid-flight— these challenges can be overcome.

By marrying 3D printing and unmanned aerial vehicles, the traditional obstacles that can make construction challenging or impossible in many places—access, terrain, climate, human safety—are no longer of concern. MUPP has the potential to operate in any locale.

Our research proves that it is possible to develop a functional 3D printer that is not limited by the x, y, or z axis. While there are still many improvements to be made for the technology to be fully usable, applications are vast.

What’s Next?

To better assist us in developing partnerships with outside entities and rapidly advance the technology, we have developed a website (www.printerswithoutborders.com) to illustrate our research process and document the evolution of the MUPP prototype. Questions remain as to how this technology can be utilized by the architecture, engineering, and construction industries, and what other applications may exist that are currently unexplored. We continue to theorize how devices like MUPP can impact everyday life; not just about how it could be more efficient doing what we can already do, but by uncovering entirely new functions that would be impossible without it.

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Robert Jernigan, Jared Shier, Tam Tran, Mindy King, Li Wen

Year Completed