AMS Spring 2023

Virtual Drones Zoom Around 3D Printed Dronopod in Downtown Knoxville

Inkbit

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Imagine your hometown in the future -what does it look like? You may picture a high-tech makeover a la The Jetsons or Futurama, or maybe you’re just imagining a few changes – after all, we’re pretty high-tech already, in many places. It’s not too hard to picture a city with drones zooming all around it, though, and we may not be very far away from that future, in fact – drones are already making pizza deliveries in some places, after all. If you’d like to see what that drone-filled city might actually look like, though, take a trip to Knoxville, Tennessee.

Knoxville isn’t actually flying drones all over the city at the moment, but architect Keith Kaseman of KBAS, with help from several organizations including Branch Technology, recently constructed a landing pad, or dronopod, for them. The 12-foot-tall, 450-pound structure was 3D printed using Branch Technology’s freeform 3D printer, and it’s composed of two of the largest parts to ever be 3D printed in one piece. Kaseman has worked with Branch in the past; he collaborated with the company on the 18-foot-tall 3D printed TN-01 sculpture about a year and a half ago.

Keith Kaseman [Image: UT]

Around the same time TN-01 was being unveiled, Kaseman was given a drone as a gift, and he began imagining a city full of drones would look like – and what kind of architecture would be needed to facilitate the operation of those drones. Thus the idea for the dronopod was born, and the idea was made physical thanks in part to $5,000 in funding from the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design, where Kaseman is a professor. The UT Fab Lab also participated in the project, fabricating the stainless steel components of the structure.

The bright orange dronopod is now mounted on the side of Knoxville’s West Jackson Laboratories, where it will remain at least through May. The orange paint serves to keep the structure from degrading in the sun. Kaseman has been practicing flying his drone and landing it on the platform at the top of the dronopod, and although it’s not an actual hub for multiple drones, it’s easy enough to imagine that it is. An augmented reality app allows users to look at the structure through their smartphones and watch virtual drones take off and land – just as they might in that not-so-far-off futuristic city.

“The main goal is just to spark imagination,” said Breanna Browning, a master’s student at UT and collaborator on the project. “We call it the urban imaginary.”

Branch Technology’s 3D printers utilize huge robotic arms to build large structures, using the company’s patented Cellular Fabrication technique. Cellular Fabrication was inspired by structures found in nature, which are extremely lightweight yet incredibly strong – just as a drone port attached to a building would need to be. The dronopod, like other structures 3D printed through Cellular Fabrication, is made of light, carbon-reinforced plastic. According to Kaseman, he hopes the project will generate conversation about what Knoxville and other cities might look like in as little as 10 years’ time.

“I imagine (the city) would look different and will definitely work in a different way,” he said. “This is an invitation to imagine that there will be a whole different level of technology used for production, and different building types we haven’t even begun to really play with yet…It’s inevitable, just like our phones. We couldn’t imagine how many ways we could use them 10 years ago.”

Discuss in the Dronopod forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Knoxville News Sentinel / Images: Keith Kaseman via Instagram]

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