MIT’s Self-Sufficient Robot Builder

MIT's self-sufficient robot builder

MIT’s Self-Sufficient Robot Builder

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How the robotic system could make construction building faster, more economic, and adaptable to the future.

Three weeks ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) disclosed research on a robotic system that can 3D print the basic structure of an entire building in less than a single day. It has since become tentatively known as MIT’s self-sufficient robot builder. By definition, it is a robotic system that moves via a tracked vehicle that carries a large industrial robotic arm. Attached at the end is a smaller, precision-motion robotic arm that does all the work.

In practice, it has actually already 3D printed a 50-foot diameter, 12 foot high insulated concrete dome in under 14 hours. In theory, however, the institute envisions plans far beyond simple 3D printing for the robotic system. In fact, MIT’s self-sufficient robot builder aims to do exactly what its title entails: automate the entire construction process from start to finish to become entirely self-sufficient.

Equipped with a scoop that can be used to both prepare a building surface and acquire local materials, MIT’s self-sufficient robot builder can be operated electrically. It can even be powered by solar panels. The goal is for the system to be deployed remotely, either to developing nations or for disaster relief to provide rapid shelter autonomously.

The ultimate vision for MIT’s self-sufficient robot builder is a lot broader, though, as illustrated by Steven Keating. Keating, a PhD mechanical engineering graduate and research affiliate, says the goal is to,

“In the future, have something totally autonomous, that could [be sent] to the moon or Mars or Antarctica, and it would just go out and make these buildings for years.”

To put it as plainly as possible, MIT is looking to develop a fully self-sufficient machine capable of autonomously visiting  remote sites. From there, it will survey and assess landscaping and carry out the necessary demo before prepping a building surface. Afterwards, MIT’s self-sufficient robot builder will have theoretically curated enough information about the construction site to accurately create its own ideas for design, structure, and execution. Work will be individualized and designed using onsite environmental data for complete accuracy and customization.

For example, supporting pillars of a building could be placed in optimal locations based on the ground-penetrating radar analysis of the site. Walls could have varying thickness depending upon their orientation. And a building could have thicker, more insulated walls on its north side in cold climates, walls that taper from bottom to top as their load-bearing requirements decrease, or curves that help the structure withstand winds. In other words, the machine will come up with everything needed from demo to design to build and everything in between entirely separate of human interference. And it will do so using the data it gathers from its surrounding environment.

MIT’s self-sufficient robot builder will be completely capable of harvesting building materials needed for construction from the local environment, too. And because shape and thickness can be optimized for what is needed rather than what is available in premade lumber and materials, waste can be significantly reduced (which makes it cost-efficient, as well).

Neri Oxman, the projects’ group director, concludes that the vision for MIT’s self-sufficient robot builder is not merely just a printer. It is an entirely new way of creating. Their current platform represents an engineering advance that will take architectural design into the future, where they won’t only be able to create a faster, better, and cheaper method of construction, but gain

“The ability to design and digitally fabricate multi-functional structures in a single build. [This] embodies a shift from the machine age to the biological age — from considering the building as a machine to live in, made of standardized parts, to the building as an organism, which is computationally grown, additively manufactured, and possibly biologically augmented.”

This could very well be the future of construction.

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