Top Tips for Successful Tendering
Technology’s Role in Attracting Younger Workers to Construction
Why Net Zero Homes are the Next Big Thing for Smart Resi Builders
Striking a Balance Between Luxury and Affordability
Alarming Number of Suicides Among Construction Workers
Gold Coast Leads the Way with Innovation
St James Station's Ghostly Train Tunnels Given New Life
A Look Into the New High-Tech World of Tunnelling
By John Biggs
November 28, 2017
Construction involves a lot of very big things. Big machinery, big tools, big structures. But it’s tiny creatures that are providing inspiration for an emerging wave of building methods.
I’m talking about insects, many species of which are tremendously skilled builders with an innate gift for their trade. Ants and termites build structurally sound and dizzyingly complex structures from dirt, suitable for housing hundreds of thousands or millions of their ranks. Honeybees construct complex and symmetrical beehives and honeycombs from which they operate their honey factories and provide shelter for their queen. Even spiders are builders, creating geometrically perfect webs as a trap for prey.
Scientists have been looking to such insect behavior to model a new form of construction, done by swarms of semi-autonomous robots that can construct basic structures with minimal programming and human intervention. This could be especially useful on projects that are dangerous or otherwise inhospitable to human workers, like disaster zones or even outer space.
What makes insects such a perfect model for construction is their collective consciousness. There’s no foreman barking out orders during the construction of a beehive, the creatures simply know their own task, and the group can pivot to adjust to changing priorities as they arise. It’s a pretty amazing thing to see a group operating as a united force without any guidance.
Harvard’s Self-organizing Systems Research Group is drawing inspiration from these tiny builders, and has created small construction robots programmed to work together in a swarm. These three-motored, four-wheeled robots are relatively simple, containing a few infrared and ultrasound sensors to avoid impeding one another’s progress, but not much else. They’re preprogrammed with a design and essentially turned lose to bring it to fruition, with no human control.
Harvard’s videos accompanying their research show small groups of tiny robots in action building a variety of simple structures using foam blocks, like staircases and low walls. The hope is that one day this technology can be harnessed in disaster zones to stack protective sandbags, or in space for the construction of research facilities, even eventual colonies for humans.
The robots operate independently, following a basic blueprint inputted by a human. They do not “communicate”, only react to changes as the structure gets built. Each new block put in place can be sensed by members of the swarm, and they can alter their course and priorities based on what’s already been done, trying other courses of action until the programmed structure is complete.
Obviously, structures intended for human use require a greater degree of precision than a massive mound of dirt built by a colony of termites, which is where the preprogrammed blueprints come into play.
The University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design has been experimenting with slightly terrifying sounding “spiderbots” that can be programmed to construct webs made from carbon fiber. A pair of these bots starts by affixing anchor points to a wall and then connects pieces of carbon fiber to create custom-programmed “web” shapes. The university is working on increasing the number of robots that can work together at once, and training them to navigate more complex surfaces like curved walls and ceilings.
The mysteries of nature are always a step or two ahead of human ingenuity, so the concept of using mini-robots in numbers even approaching the populations of actual insect colonies is a long way off. But for now, it has been proven through research that a group of a dozen or so robots can indeed operate as a collective unconscious to build simple structures. I, for one, welcome our new insect-inspired construction overlords.
If you liked this article, here are a few more you may enjoy:
How Construction Technology is Saving Time, Money, and Jobs
Construction Robotics Heating Up the Industry
Keeping Your Technology Up to Date
The robots are coming: Autonomous vehicles on the jobsite
The widest used rating system for green building is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It’s no surprise, then, that major U.... Read More
July 1, 2018
Hear Brad Hyatt, Associate Professor at California State University Fresno, discuss what students are learning in school to prepare them for const... Read More
Budget. Schedule. Quality. The trifecta of a project. But balancing that trifecta isn't easy to do. Our webinar, led by construction industry exper... Read More
Building in the "Big Easy" sometimes isn't. The challenges faced by Landis Construction aren't often understood by out-of-towners, because when it'... Read More
The acquisition and maintenance of heavy machinery is a major expense for any size company, so it stands to reason that equipment is worth taking s... Read More
Estimating mistakes cost contractors plenty. And, with the demand from customers for estimates on-the-fly, the chances of missing the mark increase... Read More
In all big construction projects, time is money, and few projects drag along as painfully slow as high-rise buildings. A new method of construction... Read More
June 25, 2018