Are Robotic Insects The New Construction Workers?

  • In my review of Made of… New Materials Sourcebook for Architecture and Design, I discussed several new material innovations in architecture and design that will shape the future of these fields. But building processes themselves also seem to be re-invented. The General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania recently presented a team of quadrotor robots, the possible construction workers of the future. These extraordinary little machines, a mix of robotic insects and helicopters, are able to autonomously build tower-like cubic structures from modular parts. The video below shows a team of quadrotors working together to construct the framework of a (rather small) building.

    As you can see, the structure of the building is held together with magnets. The robotic construction workers, who have learned to work together, are able to verify that the alignment is correct by attempting to wiggle the structural components around. Of course, the possibilities are still limited. The built structures are rudimentary and a lot of development has to be done, but the project is remarkable enough to stimulate speculation on how the future of construction could look like. Imagine an urban construction site full of buzzing robotic helicopters dragging around building materials…

    Robotic insects have been a hot topic for some time. Researchers from several countries are working on the development of tiny robots with the size of a flea, that could one day be “mass-produced, churned out in swarms and programmed for a variety of applications, such as surveillance, micromanufacturing, medicine, cleaning”, and so on. Last year I wrote an article about Flyfire, a project by MIT’s Senseable City Lab and the Aerospace Robotics and Embedded Systems Laboratory that attempts to transform any ordinary space into a highly immersive and interactive display environment by the use of self-organizing micro helicopters.