Will Flying Robots Replace Construction Workers?

A Swiss team is using autonomous drones to build towering brick structures.

The future of construction projects may not lie with human workers, but rather with swarms of autonomous builder robots able to build complex brick structures from a digital blueprint. In an exhibition by ETH Zurich roboticist Rafaello D’Andrea and architects Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, several robotic quadrocopters were able to successfully build a 20-foot-tall curving tower of polystyrene blocks at a museum in France.

The robots are able to fly autonomously, but they also get help from the environment: The ceiling of the room where the assembly is taking place was equipped with a motion-capture system. A computer uses the vision data to keep track of the quadcopters and tell them where to go. To avoid collisions, the robots reserve air space on one of two “freeways” before they fly.

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When a robot’s battery runs low, it automatically lands on a charger and a new quadrotor takes its place. Adhesive glue on the bottom of the bricks holds them together once put into place, and each robot has a specially designed gripper to hold and place the bricks. Overall, the assembly took place at an average pace of 100 bricks per hour.

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The researchers concluded that quick flights are essential to prevent factors such as air turbulence resulting in a misplaced brick. The speed and precision could cut down on construction delays, giving this robotic workforce an edge over their human counterparts.

Rafaello D’Andrea / Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler

Video and photos: Markus Waibel/ETH Zurich

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