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Fiberglass-spinning robots could be construction workers of the future

The bots could be used for construction in remote places such as on the seafloor or in space

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2:00pm, September 26, 2018
fiberglass pipes made by robots

TOTALLY TUBULAR Silkwormlike robots that spin strands of fiberglass into durable custom-shaped pipes (as seen above, holding up in winter weather) could someday help build infrastructure in deserts, on the seafloor or perhaps on other planets.

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Much like a silkworm uses a single thread to swaddle itself in a cocoon, a new kind of robot spins a single strand of material around its body to build custom-shaped fiberglass structures.

The new robots could create customized construction materials on-site, unlike other industrious bots that assemble premade building blocks (SN: 3/22/14, p. 8). Fleets of the fiberglass-spinning bots may someday erect buildings and bridges in remote or dangerous locations, researchers report online September 26 in Science Robotics.

Each robot, slightly larger than a 1-liter bottle, is girded by a silicone balloon and topped with an arm that turns like a propeller. To build a piece of piping, the robot’s arm winds resin-coated fiberglass thread around its puffed-up silicone belly. Ultraviolet light then hardens the resin and glues the fiberglass strands together. When the robot completes a 9-centimeter-long segment, its belly deflates and the machine scoots up the tube where the arm resumes spinning fiberglass. By tilting in a new direction, the bot can control how the tube bends.

a photo of the new silkwormlike robots with fiberglass spun around their bodies, and an image of fiberglass pipes created by the robots

Designer and roboticist Markus Kayser and his MIT colleagues commissioned 16 of their fiberglass-spinning bots to build curved tubes up to 4.1 meters long. This bouquet of fiberglass pipes withstood seven months of Massachusetts autumn and winter weather — an “extremely impressive” demonstration of the bots’ capabilities, says Nathan Melenbrink, a roboticist at Harvard University.

The machines could join forces with other types of construction robots to build more sophisticated, multimaterial structures, says Radhika Nagpal, another Harvard roboticist. Robotic construction crews could create infrastructure in deserts, underwater or in other hazardous environments — perhaps even on other planets, she says.

The fiberglass-spinning bots currently are controlled by a computer and can build only predesigned structures. But future versions equipped with cameras, lasers or other sensors could coordinate and respond to obstacles to build site-specific structures on the fly. That may make them useful for propping up collapsed buildings during search-and-rescue operations, says Francesco Mondada, a roboticist at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.  

Citations

M. Kayser et al. Design of a multi-agent, fiber composite digital fabrication system. Science Robotics. Published online September 26, 2018. doi: 10.1126/scirobotics.aau5630.

Further Reading

M. Temming. Here’s what robots could learn from fire ants. Science News Online, August 16, 2018.

M. Temming. In these bot hookups, the machines meld their minds. Science News Online, September 12, 2017.

A. Yeager. Thousand-robot swarm self-assembles into complex shapes. Science News Online, August 15, 2014.

M. Rosen. Termite-inspired robots build structures without central commandScience News. Vol. 185, March 22, 2014, p. 8.

R. Ehrenberg. Silk. Science News. Vol. 174, November 22, 2008, p. 24.

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