MIT Media Lab unveils autonomous construction platform

An autonomous robot under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) could provide the blueprint for construction projects of the future. The Digital Construction Platform (DCP) can effectively 3D print an entire building.


An autonomous robot under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) could provide the blueprint for construction projects of the future. The Digital Construction Platform (DCP) can effectively 3D print an entire building. Courtesy: MITThere’s plenty of room in the world of construction for disruptive technologies. Safety, efficiency and speed all hold potential for improvements that would quickly catch the attention of any site manager. The Mediated Matter Group at MIT Labs seems to agree, publishing a paper in Science Robotics that argues construction “relies on traditional fabrication technologies that are dangerous, slow, and energy-intensive”, before offering their own solution.

In the video below, a prototype of the solution is put to work. The free-moving system is a stark contrast to the rigid 3D printers most people have seen before. It takes less than 14 hours to build the structure of a 50-foot-diameter, 12-foot-high dome.

The paper, titled ‘Toward site-specific and self-sufficient robotic fabrication on architectural scales‘, sets out an autonomous, robotic alternative to conventional construction. It’s called the Digital Construction Platform (DCP) and works essentially as a giant 3D printer on wheels.

With a top speed of 0.5 m/s, the DCP is capable of quickly printing out the structure of an entire building according to a preloaded plan. It consists of the kind of tracked vehicle often seen on building sites, but that’s where the similarities end.

The platform carries a large robotic arm, which has a smaller, more precise robotic arm at its tip. This smaller arm directs the construction nozzle and is used to pour concrete with incredible accuracy, spray insulation material or carefully craft a structure using a number of materials of varying densities.

The team at MIT proposes that structures built with the DCP could be completed faster and for less than conventional methods. It could also allow for a higher level of intricacy, as different materials can be incorporated with ease during the process.

The total system has been priced at $244,500.

For centuries, construction has barely changed

Speaking to MIT News, research affiliate on the project Steven Keating pointed out that the construction industry needs to get with the times. “The construction industry is still mostly doing things the way it has for hundreds of years,” he said. Plans are still standardized and “the buildings are rectilinear, mostly built from single materials, put together with saws and nails.”

And what about the long-term ambitions of the team behind the technology? “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,” says Keating, who led the development of the system.

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Total transformation of the construction industry won’t happen overnight, though. The prototype platform has been designed to show off the potential for mobile 3D building technology. “We also wanted to show that we could build something tomorrow that could be used right away. With this process, we can replace one of the key parts of making a building, right now,” he said. “It could be integrated into a building site tomorrow.”

Paradigm shift from mechanical to biological

MIT’s Mediated Matter Group says it focuses on “nature-inspired design and design-inspired nature”, taking inspiration from the natural world and applying it to the latest technology. Neri Oxman, group director and associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, says that the DCP highlights much more than an engineering advance.

“Making it [construction] faster, better, and cheaper is one thing. But the ability to design and digitally fabricate multifunctional structures in a single build 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.”

“So to me, it’s not merely a printer,” she said, “but an entirely new way of thinking about making, that facilitates a paradigm shift in the area of digital fabrication, but also for architectural design. Our system points to a future vision of digital construction that enables new possibilities on our planet and beyond.”

This article originally appeared on Vinelake. Vinelake is a CFE Media content partner.

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