Tomorrow’s builder: the Fiberbot

MIT researchers believe fiberglass-spinning robots will change the face of architecture and on-site construction. Nick Carne reports.

The future of building? A Fibrebot in action, building a pole.

The future of building? A Fibrebot in action, building a pole.

Kayser et al
This could be what building sites of the future will look like.

US researchers have developed autonomous robotic construction systems they say can interweave a series of fibreglass tubes to build stable, long-lasting structures, and even fine-tune key aspects such as thickness or curvature as they go.

As a bonus, if you program them correctly they will avoid bumping into each other during the day.

The developers, a team from Medicated Matters Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), call them “Fiberbots”, though neither the term nor the concept is new.

In 2015, Carnegie Mellon University researchers published a paper describing the development of a mini-robot of the same name, and used to test robot performance. Engineers have since used the term in relation to other applications of swarm robots.

What Markus Kayser and his MIT colleagues have done, however, is to advance the concept of self-operating robotic swarms in a way they say could usher in the next generation of architecture for on-site construction of bridges and buildings.

In a paper published in Science Robotics, they report that 22 Fiberbots took just 12 hours to build a 4.5-metre composite structure that survived seven months through a Massachusetts autumn and winter without damage.

Unlike many existing robotic architectural systems, which mainly assemble pre-made building materials, the MIT design allows for modular construction from scratch.

The Fiberbot sits on a fixed grounding structure, tethered by its inflatable silicone membrane. Its winding “arm” pulls fiberglass thread and resin from a storage system inside the grounding structure, mixes the materials in its nozzle, and winds the wetted fibre around the surface of its silicone membrane.

By deflating the membrane completely, the Fiberbot can detach from the cured fibreglass structure, climb along the length of the tube and build upwards continuously. And it’s adaptable.

“For instance, in extreme environments with heavy winds, the robots could wind thicker and stronger composite fibres by simply modifying the robotic winding pattern,” the authors write.

“Robots could also weave their tubes in closer proximity to each other, creating denser and stronger overall structures.”

In the trials, when the Fiberbots were encoded with flocking behaviour algorithms they were able to avoid collision when building adjacent structures. With further testing, the researchers say, they could prove invaluable when working in harsh and even extra-terrestrial environments.

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