Construction Robot Can ‘Print’ a Building in 14 Hours

MIT engineers have developed an autonomous system for assembling structures in disaster areas, remote environments, and maybe even other planets.

Interplanetary terraforming is a recurring motif in science fiction. Typically, the process involves sending massive machines out to remote planets, where they engineer the environment and build structures for human habitation. After a few years, the planet is ready for people and the first wave of colonists arrive.

That's usually when the aliens attack.

An engineering team at MIT may have just brought us one step closer to this science-fiction future with a robotic system that can assemble an entire building by itself. Dubbed the Digital Construction Platform (DCP), the robot is essentially a mobile 3D printer that can roll into any environment and start building structures — no humans necessary. According to the design team, the mobile robotic construction platform could eventually be deployed in disaster areas, extreme climates and even, yes, other planets.

Engineers from MIT's Mediated Matter lab provide details on the DCP system in this week's issue of the journal Science Robotics. It's not just a conceptual project, either. The MIT team has already built a working prototype that can assemble a 50-foot-wide, 12-foot-high structure in less than 14 hours.

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The DCP prototype consists of a heavy-duty tracked vehicle, similar to a backhoe or bulldozer, outfitted with a large industrial-strength robotic arm. On the end of the big arm, a smaller arm is tipped with a precision extrusion device that combines 3D-printer technology with a conventional construction nozzle.

The nozzle is able to handle industrial tasks like pouring concrete or spraying insulation foam, but the high-tech robotics underneath allow for much greater precision. The unit does not require any driver or work team – in fact, it doesn't require any humans at all.

Using pre-programmed designs, the robot can roll onto a building site and start construction all by its lonesome. The DCP unit is also equipped with a scoop that can be used to prep the ground surface or grab up any soil or other nearby materials.

In a proof-of-concept trial run, the DCP unit fabricated the foam-insulation framework for a 50-foot structure, using a standard construction method in which polyurethane molds are filled with concrete.

It's a relatively modest task, but lead researcher Steven Keating wanted to demonstrate that the technology could be used right away.

“With this process, we can replace one of the key parts of making a building right now,” Keating said in a statement. “It could be integrated into a building site tomorrow.”

Keating's long-term plans are where things get interesting. Future versions of the system will employ ground-penetrating radar to find the best location for a structure. Additional sensors will assess the environment, adjusting the structure on the fly to account for angle of sunlight and prevailing winds.

The DCP extruder is designed to handle multiple materials at various densities, and can switch between materials in mid-construction. As such, the robotic system could erect concrete walls with windows of transparent plastic, then add further insulating and finishing materials. If all goes according to plan, the team's predictive analyses show that DCP construction would be faster, safer and less expensive than any current construction methods.

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The DCP concept has potential applications outside of traditional construction, as well. For example, DCP units could be dropped into disaster areas to assemble temporary shelters within hours. The system could also be adapted for underwater use, to build synthetic coral reefs using materials scooped from the seafloor.

Then there's that interplanetary angle.

The ultimate vision is “in the future, to have something totally autonomous, that you could send to the moon or Mars or Antarctica, and it would just go out and make these buildings for years,” said Keating.

No word yet on alien defense technology, but hey — it's just a prototype. 

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