Construction robot assembling a T-joint (translucent at left).
Unlike the one-way construction methods used today that make it hard to repair and impossible to reuse most building materials, smarter structures could one day be assembled by robots from reusable components.
Cornell's Creative Machines Lab is "exploring a smarter way to allow the assembly, disassembly and reconfiguration of structures," said lab director Hod Lipson, a professor of both mechanical and aerospace engineering, as well as computing and information science at Cornell University. "Right now, [humans] are very bad at recycling construction materials."
Lipson's Creative Machine's Lab envisions transforming the construction industry with robots that deliver smart construction materials to a site, then assemble them into structures which can be efficiently reconfigured when necessary.
When repairs need to be made, the robots remove damaged structure components and return them to the manufacturer for refurbishing, then reassemble the refurbished components in place. When changes need to be made, or a structure's size or configuration needs to be changed, the robots bring in new smart materials and dovetail them to the existing structure. Finally, instead of tearing down an outdated structure, the robots could disconnect each component piece-by-piece and return them to the warehouse.
If Lipson's dream is realized, then modern construction sites will become seething masses of autonomous construction robots which work together by virtue of electronic tags on the smart materials that only allow them to be put together in the desired configuration. Likewise, sensors detecting damage inside already built structures will automatically inform repair-robots as to the location and type of repair needed, with the robots handling the job autonomously without human supervision.
To prove the concept, Lipson's Creative Machine's Lab has produced prototype construction robots, and scale-models of their smart building materials, then demonstrated how they can autonomously assemble and disassemble structures. Key to the success of the demonstration was a smart truss component that allows the geared robot to engage grooves that rotate and secure interlocking joints, thus permitting the robots to autonomously assemble complete structures.
All the details of the smart materials and construction robot's assembly and disassembly methods will be revealed in the IEEE's Robotics and Automation magazine. Besides Lipson, co-authors include former visiting scientist Franz Nigl, former visiting doctoral candidate Shuguang Li, and Cornell student Jeremy Blum. Also contributing to the project was professor Daniela Rus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), professor Mark Yim at the University of Pennsylvania, and professor Eric Klavins at the University of Washington.
Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program.