Mini-robots: are wall-crawling robots the builders of the future?
Industrial revolution: digital technology combines with physical fabrication, paving the way for a future of robot-built architecture.
Using digitally controlled building methods is prompting something of a step-change in construction techniques with the speed of innovation in robotics having the potential to revolutionise the industry, offering boundless variety in design, together with greater speed and efficiency.
Robotics researcher Maria Yablonina, a University of Stuttgart graduate, has devised a new method of construction using wall-crawling robot builders to create complex structures quickly, cheaply and efficiently.
Her Master’s project, Mobile Robotic Fabrication System for Filament Structures, in collaboration with the University’s Institute for Computational Design (ICD) and the Institute for Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE), developed a carbon-fibre fabrication method involving numerous robots small enough to fit inside a single suitcase.
These agile wall-climbing robots are programmed to distribute fibre filaments on any horizontal or vertical surface, or even within existing architecture, to support the structures. Working in tandem, pairs of mini-robots pass fibre threads back and forth across a given space, attaching them to anchor points in the surface to weave a pattern and create a structure on-site.
“The robots are controlled semi-autonomously, using an external perception system and a pathfinder algorithm,” Yablonina explained. “Each robot is equipped with a vacuum motor that allows it to move along the walls and surfaces of any inclination.”
Their size and mobility means they can reach areas and create structures that larger industrial robots would struggle to access. Yablonina’s thesis supervisor, experimental architect and ICD director Achim Menges, commented: “We are only at the very beginning of exploring the true architectural potential of this fabrication system, but we are convinced that its main advantage is that you can build entirely new structures that would be impossible to materialise otherwise.”
The robots feature sensors that allow them to travel and interact accurately along walls, roofs and ceilings. The result, according to Yablonina, is the potential for vast urban and interior environments to become fabrication sites. The more robots used, the bigger the potential structure they create.
“I envision the robots being used for larger scale structures in external environments. One can imagine a fabrication process where an operator arrives to the scene with a suitcase housing all the necessary robots and materials to create a large structure. These agile mobile robotic systems move robotic fabrication processes beyond the constraints of the production hall,” Yablonina added.
The ICD and ITKE departments involved in Yablonina’s project were also behind last year’s carbon-fibre Elytra Filament Pavilion on display at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Fabricated by robots, the garden pavilion was formed of tightly woven carbon fibre cells inspired by the shells of flying Elytra beetles. The structure was gradually expanded over the course of six months by robots responding to real-time sensory data on the pavilion’s structural behaviour and the patterns of inhabitation in the garden.
On the other side of the world, brick-laying robots have created a bulging brick façade for a Shanghai arts centre. Chinese studio Archi-Union Architects programmed robots to construct the undulating brick frontage for a new art gallery in Shanghai’s West Bund district. The complex form of the façade was generated using computer software, which was then used to programme robots that accurately placed the bricks in the correct positions to create the sculptural surface.
The architects retained and reinforced the structure of an existing building, and the frontage of grey bricks, salvaged from the original building, was added to one elevation. The entrance is set into a slightly concave opening, around which the façade bulges outwards, creating a fluid form that obscures its brick construction.
It’s not just buildings getting the robot treatment either. Dutch designer Marleen Kaptein has partnered with design brand Label/Breed to create a chair from ribbons of robotically wrapped carbon fibre. The designer worked with the Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) and its automated fibre placement robot to create the furniture.
The robot usually creates parts for aircraft and spacecraft, overlaying separate strips of carbon fibre in different directions. It adapts each strand as required for specific products, meaning less waste. The chair features a grid-patterned seat and back, supported by a framework of compressed recycled carbon.
Carbon fibre has been hailed as an untapped resource, with Menges’ team at the University of Stuttgart using carbon fibre in long-span architectural roofs and advanced building envelopes. Unlike robots used by the car industry, which are taught to carry out and repeat one task, the team in Stuttgart is developing software to make each movement of the robotic arm more intelligent, resulting in tailor-made structures. The aim is to make robotic fabrication more intuitive, the results of which could be seen at the V&A’s Elytra Filament Pavilion.
These are new technologies, being applied in innovative ways, but, according to Menges, represent a dramatic shift in building construction; and projects such as these, combining digital technology and physical fabrication, have the potential to completely revolutionise the construction industry. We await the fourth industrial revolution.