The future has arrived. These autonomous 3D printing robots act like a colony of ants to create a structure with materials it finds.
Led by Jason Kelly Johnson and Michael Shiloh, a team of students at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco have developed autonomous, Arduino-powered robots capable of 3D printing in hostile environments. The two-monthlong project was conducted in the college’s Creative Architecture Machines studio, which was designed to assist aspiring architects bring their ideas to life, rather than simply relying on pre-existing CAD software and other technologies.
Aptly named Swarmscapers, the small bots are equipped to traverse rough terrain, while working solely with on-site materials to build inhabitable structures — something that will certainly come in handy when traditional construction equipment may not be readily available or in a setting where it would have trouble operating.
“Extreme heat and the abundance of raw materials in the desert make it an ideal testing bed for the robotic swarm to operate, creating emergent seed buildings for future habitations that are ready for human occupancy over the course of multiple decades,” its creators write.
Each member of the “swarm” is programmed with a rule-set to complete one specific task while working in unison with one another. The Swarmscrapers also come loaded with a binding agent, which allows them to turn nearly any granular material — like sand, salt, rice and sawdust (which was used in tests conducted at CCA) — into intricate shapes.
“The robot works by driving on top of the sawdust based on a tool-path defined in the computer, and dropping a binding agent on the material, hardening it in place. It does this repeatedly, layer by layer until the object is complete.”
When devising the robots, the team 3D-printed each of its parts right down to the cogs for the wheels. The chassis and frame had to be assembled using a number of metal parts, washers and nuts, along with some aluminum sleeves and zip ties. On the hardware side, there are two stacks: a power module that supplies 7V to the drive motors and the pump motor, and a control module responsible for driving the motors and communicating to the computer.
Based on an Arduino Uno (ATmega328), the latter stack was comprised of an Adafruit battery shield and LiPo battery, two XBee 802.15.4 units, an XBee shield as well as a USB adapter, which enables the robots to be controlled via PC. In addition, an H-bridge motor controller and MOSFET transistor were employed to power the peristaltic pump.
“We believe that the potential of autonomous mobile 3D printing is enormous, and with enough time and research, that this is a viable method for 3d printing actual buildings in the future. There is of course, much more work to be done,” the team concludes. “The concept of autonomous machines constructing architecture in bottom up ways will require a huge amount of research into sensory systems, communication systems, advanced machine vision, as well as machine learning.”
Interested in learning more? You can head over to the project’s official page here, or watch it in action below.